As a nation, we got a little silly a couple of years ago when the deadly Ebola arrived on our shores. So it is reassuring that public health officials, including here in Illinois, are taking quick steps to tamp down fears and encourage sensible precautions as the worrisome Zika virus begins to threaten.
When the Ebola threat emerged, more than a few national political leaders demanded that every single air traveler be screened. Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton and others called for banning flights from affected regions. Some wanted to shut out the whole continent of Africa. Tom Cotton, a Republican Senate candidate in Arkansas, complained President Barack Obama was “not protecting our country and our families from Ebola.”
The Ebola scare was overblown in the United States, as epidemiologists insisted all along. And two weeks ago, the World Health Organization declared the two-year epidemic had ended in West Africa.
Now, people are worried about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been linked, though not conclusively, to thousands of babies born in Brazil with microcephaly, which causes abnormally small heads and impaired brains. On Thursday, the WHO said the virus, thought to have been brought by travelers from Africa, “is now spreading explosively.”
Three cases, contracted elsewhere, have turned up in Illinois. That number could go up when the warm weather returns, bringing back mosquitos of the Aedes genus. The species most closely linked to the disease, Aedes aegypti, has spread into Illinois, but is not common.
The Illinois Department of Public Health is enhancing its mosquito-surveillance network to track mosquitoes that might carry Zika, spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said Friday. The department also is echoing recommendations from the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention that pregnant women postpone travel to affected countries and, if people need to travel, that they take precautions. They should wear mosquito-repellent, long-sleeved shirts and long pants and staying indoors where screens are tight-fitting.
There is no Zika vaccine or specific treatment, but Chicago-area hospitals and health agencies already have a training and coordination system put in place when Ebola was a threat.
As we learn more about the disease, health officials should remain ready to respond. But, as the Ebola scare taught us, it’s important not to overreact. Personal freedoms are always the first victims.
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