My daughter and her boyfriend came for a visit last weekend.
He’s also named Paul, so we call him “the Scot” because he comes from Scotland.
One evening we were in the pool when the mosquitoes showed up. They bit the Scot up pretty good.
The next day he came down with some flu-like symptoms.
The Zika virus?
Not likely. But that’s the way you start to think when a disease like that is in the news.
It’s been in the news quite a bit in the Scot’s native country.
A check of a database of newspapers in the British Isles reveals dozens of articles with headlines like “Sex ban recommended for British tourists in Florida after Zika outbreak.”
Here’s how Orlando Sentinel writer Scott Maxwell described the reaction to such headlines:
“Every politician in this state quickly morphed into the Amity Island mayor from ‘Jaws.'”
You may recall that the mayor in question told tourists to ignore the threat from a giant shark that was taking bites out of swimmers.
But in many ways, that tiny insect is scarier than a shark.
I realized that after I put in a call to Dr. Mel Weinstein, the head of infectious diseases at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.
I last spoke to Weinstein in 2014, when the threat from the Ebola virus was being hyped out of all proportion by politicians and the media.
Ebola is indeed a horrible disease, but there was little chance of an outbreak in the U.S., Weinstein predicted at the time – accurately, as it turned out.
As for Zika, the problem is the opposite, Weinstein said. The symptoms are so mild that the infected person might not even notice. But if she’s pregnant, the child could be born with microcephaly, an undersized head.
That’s scary enough. Even scarier, a man who has been infected with Zika could unknowingly transmit it through sex even a few months later.
The good news is that the actual risk for any one person who travels to Florida is quite small, Weinstein said.
“It’s a minority of a minority.”
But the bad news – at least for the tourism industry – is that there’s an easy way to avoid any risk at all.
“I don’t know I would say you can’t go to Florida,” he said. “But if you don’t have to go Florida, maybe wait on it.”
He quickly added that this advice is not for “old people like you and me” – thanks a lot, Doc – but for those of child-bearing age.
That of course is the prime audience for Disney World. And the Florida tourism people are already telling potential visitors that they do a great job of managing mosquitoes in the Magic Kingdom.
Sort of like the way they manage alligators?
If I were younger I’d literally avoid the place like the plague – at least until this Zika thing is sorted out.
That will likely take a while, said Weinstein. He noted that the virus is named after the forest in Uganda were it was discovered in 1947. The effects were relatively benign for decades – until these birth defects started cropping up in women.
“The question you ask is: ‘Why are we seeing this now?'” he said. “Why did it happen at this point in time?”
It’s going to take a while to answer that question, and Congress is delaying that even further. The two parties are playing politics over a bill that would provide $1 billion to fight the virus.
As the threat has mounted, key Democrats have been holding press conferences blaming the Republicans for stalling the bill.
On Tuesday U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone held a press conference in Middlesex County in which he called for Congress to come back into session this month to pass funding to fight Zika.
When I got him on the phone yesterday, Pallone said the sticking point is that the House Republicans won’t appropriate new funds for Zika.
“They’re very much fixated on this idea we can take money from other public-health pots,” Pallone said. “I don’t know why they think there’s all this money lying around for other public-health uses that can be found and used for Zika.”
Pallone said it’s “penny-wise and pound-foolish” to scrimp on Zika.
“If you’re talking about kids born with microcephaly. you’re talking million and millions to treat kids born with a deformity,” he said. “We need to prevent these things because cost to the government is more in the long run if we don’t.”
And that’s not even considering the cost to the tourism industry.
Consider the panic surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. I visited the Florida Panhandle that summer to report on the horrific damage that oil had done to Florida’s pristine beaches.
It turned out that the Florida beaches were almost entirely untouched by the oil. But the summer season was ruined.
Now compare the threat of an oil spot on your bathing suit to the threat of major birth defects.
That highlights the difference between the Zika threat and the threat from that mechanical shark in “Jaws.”
In the movie, once the story of the attacks broke the tourists flocked to the beach to catch a glimpse of that Great White Shark.
But no one wants to see a mosquito up close – even us old guys.