vicious virus
Zika Virus a Crisis for the Caribbean

UPDATE: As concern spreads over the Zika virus, two major airlines offer refunds for passengers concerned about the health risks associated with the mosquito-borne virus.

The Zika virus, carried by mosquitos, has spread rapidly from Brazil up to the Caribbean. And now the CDC is saying American mothers have reason to be concerned about the virus’ potential to cause birth defects. The New York Times reports:

Newborns should be tested for infection with the Zika virus if their mothers have visited or lived in any country experiencing an outbreak and if the mothers’ own tests are positive or inconclusive, federal health officials said Tuesday.

But determining who’s been affected, as well as testing for the virus, won’t be simple:

There is no commercial test for infection with the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Testing must be done by the C.D.C. or some regional health departments [. . .]

Only one out of five people infected with the Zika virus develop symptoms. Just because pregnant women “don’t develop symptoms doesn’t mean that they can’t transmit it to their fetus,” Dr. [H. Cody] Meissner cautioned.

This is not just a public health crisis. It is also an economic crisis for a region that can ill-afford one. The Pan American Health Organization is telling pregnant women not to travel to certain countries in which the virus is present. How many Americans will want to travel to the Caribbean if it becomes known as birth defect central? How many tourists will attend Brazil’s Olympics this summer, under the circumstances?

This comes at a terrible time for the region. The Brazilian economy is in shambles. The Venezuelan state is threatening to implode any day. And partly as a result of the long-looming Venezuelan collapse, Cuba has opened itself to the U.S. That poses a threat to the tourist revenue of its smaller Caribbean neighbors, who cannot afford to take a hit to a major economic sector, and it means that Cuba will grab a part of whatever tourist travel is still southbound despite the virus.

It will also exacerbate America’s immigration problem: More central and South Americans will want to come, some to avoid the virus, some because a fall-off in tourism will make jobs harder to find.  Americans, already worried about illegal immigration will be more wary of admitting people who may have been exposed to a scary new virus. (And the inability to perform frontline screening won’t help.)

The next American president will have to spend a lot more time paying attention to South American issues than most people currently realize. Our neighbors are in trouble, and the spread of Zika won’t help.

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