15. Waiting for the Crisis: Zika and Political Inaction

The Zika virus is a very real public health threat to the United States and to the world. Unlike the Ebola virus, Zika has escaped confinement and is moving rapidly and cannot be contained. Rather than stopping it, the best we will be able to do is develop medical interventions to treat at-risk populations both before and after infections have been detected. And once Zika becomes a permanent part of our medical landscape, we will never be fully rid of it. This is unavoidable because Zika is both contagious and has a common and abundant vector: the mosquito, which provides a place to hide from humans and which cannot be eradicated. Thus, we are faced with another emerging health crisis. To confront the reality of Zika, our Congress needs to get serious about funding additional research and preparations for an epidemic. As rational and intelligent beings, we have the ability to anticipate future events and to take preventive action, but we cannot afford to have a political system that mimics the behavior of frogs and canaries.

Although the belief is false that a frog will refuse to leave pot of water that is slowly heating up to the boiling point, frogs are helpless to do anything about slow toxic changes to their environment. As amphibians, frogs can live on land, but must return to the water to reproduce. When they deposit their eggs in water, the eggs are exposed to anything in the water, including all manner of pollutants, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. From egg to tadpole, the frog’s entire development takes place in this chemical cocktail, and the immature frog can do nothing to avoid toxic insults from the human environment. As a result, development is often impaired, and physical abnormalities and high mortality rates are common.

In contrast to frogs, humans are able to recognize changes in the environment, and we are able to manipulate our environment in response to those changes. However, it also seems to be true that we are loath to make changes to our accustomed way of life. That apocryphal frog in the pot is a symbol of human behavior and represents a typical political response to looming environmental problems, particularly those of our own making. We see it, but we refuse to recognize it, especially if by doing so we have to change the status quo. This unwillingness to reconsider our path is embedded in and maybe even defines human politics.

On the other hand, canaries were used throughout history as a warning sign to indicate rapid lethal changes to the human environment. For coal miners, a dead canary was a warning that an environmental disaster was immanent and to leave the mine immediately. That warning was heeded without question because in a coal mine there is nowhere to escape except out. To survive, miners had to act and act fast. The Earth, our world, is very similar to a coal mine; we really have no escape options. In a finite and confined world, the first warning may be the only warning.

Our current political path seems to be to observe and lament deformed frogs and dead canaries as if their fate is somehow not intertwined with our own fate.   We believe we can endure the environment we have created and attempt to live with the consequences. We must recognize that those consequences will include increasing medical issues in babies and children, earlier onset of age-related diseases, more frequent loss of function from disease, and shorter lifespans. The costs of these consequences will be prohibitive, disastrous, and tragic. A continuation of this mindset, I predict, will be the return of the era of high mortality from infectious diseases, which we thought we had conquered more than 60 years ago. This would be a monumental failure and one that our descendants would find difficult to forgive.

Or we can accept the rules of the evolutionary game. To do so we must recognize and overcome the obstacles created by basic human nature. We live a different world today than in 1950, we must act faster, as soon as we recognize a problem, and not wait until we have an uncontrollable crisis. This means that medical research must have the money to develop vaccines now, when we recognize a threat, not later when the threat has escalated to a crisis. This means that environmental and health issues cannot be used as political footballs with one political party attempting to score points at the expense of the other party.   Today, we know for a fact that when a disease is spreading in a faraway place, that disease is only weeks, days or even hours away from us. Air travel has reduced the size of the planet to a single, very large, very dispersed city, and no one is safe from any epidemic.

When we recognize an environmental threat, we cannot wait until it knocks on our door. We can’t wait until the residents of Miami are a foot deep in sea water, until mercury is in every fish in every stream, until ground water is 500 feet down and salt water intrusion destroys our coastal water supplies, or until hundreds of babies are born with reduced brain size. When the facts tell us we must act, we should not argue with the facts because it is politically inconvenient. In the long run, facts will win every argument and losing some of those arguments will cause irreversible damage to our world. Zika is just one more canary and, while one political party blames the other for inaction, that canary is dying.