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Partisan Pandemics Political Divisions Will Affect American Beliefs about the Zika Threat

Matthew Nisbet is associate professor of communication at Northeastern University and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry scientific consultant. From 1997 to 1999, he was public relations director for CSI.

In the lead up to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, global news attention has focused on the impact of the Zika virus in the country, including efforts to halt the spread of the mosquitoborne virus across Latin America, the Caribbean, and other regions.

People who contract Zika are unlikely to experience symptoms. Those who do develop signs of infection experience a few days of body aches, rash, and fever, though in some cases there are more severe neurological and autoimmune effects. For many experts, this makes the Zika virus a potentially less serious public health problem than the lethal mosquito-transmitted pandemics of malaria and dengue.

Yet it is the special risk to infants that has galvanized worldwide attention. Among pregnant women, contracting Zika increases the risk of birth defects, including microcephaly, in which an infant’s head and brain do not fully develop. In Brazil, there have been more than 5,000 confirmed cases of microcephaly associated with Zika.

Summertime temperatures are likely to bring to the United States the first non–travel-related cases of Zika. The mosquito species that is the primary carrier of the virus ranges across the South and Southwest and stretches into states including Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, New Jersey, and parts of New York. But outbreaks in the United States are likely to be limited compared to other countries. Better housing, window screens, and air conditioning are far more common than in poorer countries, and the states that are most likely to be affected have substantial experience in preventing and containing such diseases.

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