Power Sheet: Zika Response Could Use a Little Hysteria

August 2, 2016, 2:44 PM UTC

Editor-at-Large Jennifer Reingold (@jennrein) is filling in for Geoff Colvin this week.

Yesterday, the CDC recommended that all pregnant women in the U.S. be tested for Zika—an admission that this disease is spreading far more quickly here than originally thought. And belatedly, the American public is starting to grasp the seriousness of the threat.

It’s a stark contrast to the complete overreaction to Ebola, a horrible disease that killed 11,000 people in Western Africa. In the U.S., just four people were diagnosed with the disease, one of whom died. The disease never went viral in the U.S.—but the hysteria did.

I remember walking nervously past a meatball shop in my neighborhood—even though I knew better—after one of the few people to contract the disease had eaten there. But now we are facing a true epidemic—one that doesn’t kill the victim but can damage the brain of a victim’s growing fetus—and the reaction has unfolded almost in slow motion. Just yesterday, the CDC noted that 50 people have been infected in one neighborhood in Miami, and issued a warning to pregnant women to avoid traveling to the area—the first time since the 1940s that the CDC has warned people away from a part of the continental U.S.

This is a very big deal. So why has the reaction, so far, been so muted, even as the disease has hit thousands of babies in Brazil? The human costs of giving birth to a baby with microcephaly are devastating—as are the actual costs to an already overtaxed health care system.

The answer has more to do with our own irrational response to fear than anything else. It explains why people can say, with straight faces, that our society is in the worst trouble it’s ever been in–while others trumpet with equal smugness that things have never been better. Are we more afraid of car accidents or terror attacks? Of buying too high or selling too low? Or could it be that the nonstop election circus has consumed much of our ability to worry?

The truly frightening thing is that Congress has done nothing to address the spread of Zika. The deadlocked organization left for summer recess before acting on President Obama’s request—back in February—for $1.9 billion in funding to combat the disease. I remember shaking my head at the sensationalization of the Ebola scare back in 2014. But now, I think we could use a little less election trivia on the front page and a little more focus on a true threat.

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