The United States Needs to Take Zika Seriously

The rapid spread of the Zika virus throughout the Americas elicits fears similar to those experienced during past disease outbreaks like SARS, H1N1, and West Nile Virus, as governments issue travel warnings and step-up measures to minimize the spread of the virus. Zika’s direct impact on the United States will likely be minimal, but traditional national security concerns are only half of the equation. The United States should also consider Zika’s larger impact on U.S. partners in the region and its obligations to offer assistance as a member of the international community.

In early 2015, Brazil identified a potentially serious health threat following signs of a disease outbreak. Zika is a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitos, the same mosquitos that transmit dengue, yellow fever, and the West Nile Virus. Symptoms of Zika are generally limited to a mild fever, conjunctivitis, headaches, or rashes. However, the virus has also been casually linked to microcephaly, a condition in which an infant is born with an abnormally small head as a result of improper brain development. This potential connection between Zika and cranial malformations has many worried about the continued spread of the virus, including residents of the United States. Southern regions of the United States are home to the Aedes mosquito, forcing U.S. health officials to address the concerns of Zika’s spread. At the end of 2015, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a little over 150 confirmed cases of Zika. The CDC predicts the numbers will rise, but public health officials believe Zika’s impact in the United States will be minimal.

Minimal domestic impact, however, does not mean the United States should ignore what the virus is doing in countries like Brazil.  Disease outbreaks are often cause for international concern in today’s globalized world. Two views in particular frame a state’s consideration of its response to outbreaks. The first view examines how an outbreak could affect the national health, economy, and society of a country. Infectious disease has the ability to put more soldiers in the hospital than battlefield injuries and can easily spread across borders, making it of concern in the traditional sense of national security. In contrast, the second view emphasizes the idea that eradication of a disease is a global good. The international effort to eradicate polio was viewed as a mission to support the greater good of the international community, since all countries benefitted from helping those most affected by the disease.  States should consider both viewpoints when determining how to address international disease outbreaks, including the ongoing Zika crisis.

Determining whether an infectious disease outbreak is a national security concern is often the first consideration of countries. A RAND Corporation study identified three main criteria for identifying infectious disease as a national security priority: direct mortality and morbidity, economic loss, and social and governmental disruption. Measured against the first criterion, Zika is not a security concern for the United States or Brazil. Symptoms of the virus are mild and not known to be fatal. However, the economic impact differs between the two countries. The U.S. economy is unlikely to be impacted: only a small portion of the population (women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant) face any sort of restrictions as a result of the virus, and the United States has a stable public health system and a stable economy.

Brazil faces a different economic outlook. Tourism in Brazil is a significant source of revenue, at 9.5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015, compared to 2.8 percent in the United States.  Other countries are now recommending restricted travel to the region, even with the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  Brazil’s economy is already in trouble—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts a 3.5 percent contraction in 2016—and the Brazilian real is trading near an all-time low.  A decline in the tourism industry, expected to be one of the first industries affected by Zika, is something the economy cannot afford.  Real or anticipated economic hardship can also lead to social disruption, particularly within Brazil’s currently volatile political climate.

An alternative perspective is that slowing the Zika outbreak and eradicating the disease is a global good, making Zika a matter of concern for all countries.  In February 2016, a year after the first Zika cases were reported in Brazil, the World Health Organization (WHO), at the recommendation of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, declared the growing Zika outbreak in South and North America a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The number of reported Zika cases continues to grow, and the geographic range of the virus is spreading. The Aedes mosquito is found in countries around the world with similar climates. It is not unreasonable to assume we would see an increase in cases reported in regions where the virus and the transmitting mosquitos are found.

The United States should take WHO’s emergency declaration seriously.  Zika is not limited by borders: Brazil is ground zero for this outbreak, but neighboring countries are also experiencing severe outbreaks, turning this into an international issue. The United States has previously committed to international efforts to respond to infectious diseases. In 2014, the United States, along with other countries, launched the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). Partnering at an international level to eradicate infectious disease is at the heart GHSA’s mission.  Health officials in the United States have the tools to conduct thorough research on the virus and to develop a vaccine.  Assisting Brazil and other affected countries in their efforts to eradicate Zika and prepare for the health impacts of children born with microcephaly will also help prepare the United States for outbreaks within its borders. Zika may not affect the national security of the United States, but the country will benefit from viewing the prevention of the virus’s spread, and its eventual eradication, as a matter of international concern.

Lisa Scott is a Staff Writer for  Charged Affairs. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy at George Mason University, specializing in Terrorism.

Image: Aedes mosquito (credit: coniferconifer/Flickr)


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