Balancing Travel Bans – Restrictions to Zika-Infected Countries Reduced
One of the greatest challenges when addressing a novel disease, and especially one with serious consequences, is determining what to tell an anxious public. If the message is dire and the impact minimal, people will say health officials “cried wolf” and were unnecessarily alarmist. This has a long-term effect as subsequent warnings will be ignored.
If the disease danger is minimized and grave outcomes result, health officials will be accused of incompetence. The sudden spread of Zika and the significant health issues it causes – both medically and emotionally – have presented such a challenge.
The devastating impact of birth defects and the long-term ramifications, plus the observed increase in Guillain–Barré syndrome, which has resulted in paralysis and death among adults, resulted in extremely cautious travel warnings. As scientists study both the Zika virus and its transmitting host, the Aedess aegypti mosquito, a better understanding is gained of the range of the disease. In this instance, A. aegypti does not thrive at higher elevations, hence the potential of contracting the disease is demonstrably lessened.
A seemingly curious aspect of the reporting of this change in the travel restriction is the mention of tourism. The fact is that public health not only deals with disease prevention, but with the overall wellness of the community. This can entail assessing the trade-offs of limiting travel, closing of schools and restriction of commerce. At what point does a preventive travel restriction become an economy-damaging sanction? The Mexican government’s requests for reconsideration of the travel advisory that applied to the entire nation, irrespective of the regional degree of danger, is warranted.
By way of comparison, an insect-borne disease prevalent in the Everglades of Florida might not be present in the mountains of Montana. The decision to issue a travel warning balances the extent of the danger against the maintenance of normalcy. It is an imprecise science, but one that seeks to prevent damage across all levels of society.