May 31, 2016 - Any minute now the CNN breaking news ticker is going to flash: “first U.S. mainland transmission of Zika detected.” And a ripple of fear will spread across the country.
The fear that gripped America last year during the Ebola outbreak was irrational. There was no significant transmission in the U.S., there were fewer transit links to the most affected countries, you could see and screen for very obvious symptoms, and there was a readily available test. With all of these factors, the likelihood of a major Ebola outbreak in the U.S. was small. Yet, we were still gripped with fear. Of course we were, because reality and fear don’t often go hand in hand.
But local Zika cases are coming. It may be low impact for the majority of Americans, but for vulnerable groups like pregnant women and older adults, it’s terrifying. Even more so because there’s essentially no way to know if you or your partner has been infected, there are multiple types of mosquitos that carry the virus much further into the U.S. that we initially thought, and those mosquitos are about the toughest type to kill.
And when we are focused on fear, thought out, measured action does not come easily. But fear does make us eager for action, which is something public health can harness. There is a place for fear, as it motivates us. But we do have to be mindful of the ethical considerations in using fear to fuel purposeful action. Presenting information and actionable resources as the counter or ‘answer’ to fear will be soaked up by communities looking for solutions, such as women of child-bearing age. When we can move past the initial panic and become empowered with knowledge and direction we create a more protected and engaged society. We can get people who normally don’t give a second thought to preparedness buying and using bug spray, mosquito netting, and thoughtfully considering where to travel or when to try and get pregnant.
The White House and the CDC are doing a much better job on turning fear into positive action in its response to Zika than during Ebola, but work still needs to be done ensuring that messaging gets to those who need it most. The (occasionally sensational) 24 hours news media and comment sections on the web shouldn’t be the loudest source of Zika information for the public. Actionable information and resources should also be shared in places normal Americans visit every week - grocery stores, pharmacies, and gyms to name a few.
It’s not easy to balance panicked fear with healthy fear, but it’s such a valuable tool in protecting communities that it can’t be ignored.