Federal health officials say they expect Zika spread in the United States but that any outbreak would be limited. The White House and a growing list lawmakers are trying to get ahead of a firestorm, with reassuring images and messages.
But as the Ebola panic demonstrated in 2014, it’s hard to communicate subtle public health messages in the best of circumstances. And a presidential campaign isn’t such a circumstance, especially not one that is turning on fears of foreign threats, including Mexican immigrants, Chinese hackers, ISIS terrorists — and now add alien mosquitoes.
The opportunity for political missteps is real. During the Ebola scare, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and governors called for quarantines and travel bans that went far beyond public health recommendations. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, now a GOP candidate for president, ordered the quarantine of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa — but who wasn’t sick herself. She was kept in isolation, spending two days in a tent. Other public health threats have also prompted reactions later deemed disproportionate, such as the U.S. barring of HIV-positive visitors from 1987 to 2010.