For most of the past year, the mosquito borne Zika virus has been in the news quite a bit, and for good reason. Though it’s not the sort of threat that will end civilization as we know it, Zika can make you really sick, and it can cause birth defects in pregnant women. But more importantly, the virus has a real knack for spreading to human populations that were once considered unlikely hosts.
Originally, Zika mainly preyed on monkeys in Africa and Asia, and it rarely made the leap to humans. But since 2007 the virus has managed to spread across several Pacific islands, and has thoroughly riddled Latin America. It’s estimated that as many as 1.5 million people have been infected in Brazil alone, leading to thousands of cases of babies born with microcephaly.
And over the past few months we’ve been seeing Zika pop up in the United States. For the most part, these cases consisted of people who had been infected in other countries before returning to the US. Unfortunately, that’s all about change.
An outbreak of the Zika virus has been confirmed in Florida, marking the first time the virus has been found to be transmitted via infected mosquitoes within the continental U.S.
The outbreak has infected at least four people, three men and one woman, through local transmission, Florida officials said today.
“This means Florida has become the first state in our nation to have local transmission of the Zika virus,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said today.
Scott said a small area in northern Miami that is about a square mile in size is the only area where the Zika virus is being transmitted from mosquitoes to people.
“We’re being very aggressive at testing people there we are testing the mosquitoes there and we spraying to make sure it’s contained,” Scott said. He said health officials do not think that the transmission was ongoing.
Now that mosquitoes are carrying the Zika virus in the United States, all bets are off. The government thinks that it can contain Zika with aggressive mosquito control programs, and they may very well succeed if they quickly implement those measures. If they don’t however, then the possibility of becoming infected with the virus may turn into a normal fact of life in America.
That’s because the mosquito that typically carries Zika, the Aedes aegypti, can be found all over the United States. The highest concentrations of this bug are in the deep South, but they can also be found in much of the East Coast and in California. If Zika isn’t contained in Florida, then some of these regions may face the same levels of infection that we’re seeing in Brazil.
Unfortunately, once a virus like this finds a foothold in the environment, it’s pretty much impossible to completely remove it. Even if we did eliminate it, we would still have people carrying the virus, and unwittingly transporting it across borders. It will just keep coming back.
We’re looking at a situation where the authorities will probably be able to contain the virus in small pockets of the South, but will never be rid of it. If say there is an economic collapse of some kind, and the mosquito control programs lose their budget, then Zika is going explode and show up in thousands of communities. In other words, we’re going to be living with the impending threat of a Zika epidemic for a very long time.