Zika: Why we shouldn't panic

Story highlights

  • WHO estimates 3 million to 4 million people across Americas will be infected with Zika virus in next year
  • Juliette Kayyem: There will be more cases of Zika in the United States, but that is no reason to panic

CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is the host of the "Security Mom" podcast and author of a forthcoming book, "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Take a deep breath. The Zika virus -- spreading throughout the Americas and described by the World Health Organization as a "public health emergency of international concern" -- is already here in the United States, brought by travelers from abroad. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, it is possible that there will be limited Zika outbreaks in the United States with a risk for local transmission.

But while it is true that the virus is here, and there will be more cases in future, there is no need to panic. Zika is manageable, and just one of the many other risks we face as a nation. So while it is important that we be prepared, it is also important that we remain clear-eyed and not fall victim to the fear and myth surrounding the virus.
Juliette Kayyem
I'll defer to the doctors on the detailed science of this, but from a homeland security perspective, Zika is not on the list of most pressing worries. It is of course a genuine concern. But it is not a crisis. And to ensure it doesn't become one, it is worth spending some time setting expectations. Indeed, expectations may be our biggest enemy here.
There is something about a public health disease or outbreak -- maybe because it can't be seen, it transmits without notice, and in this case involves those pesky mosquitos -- that makes it easy to get things out of perspective. However, unlike Ebola, the Zika virus is not transmitted through passive contact. It's worth remembering that Zika has been around a long time, the vast majority of those infected suffer mild to no symptoms, and its detrimental consequences appear (though the science is not conclusive) to mostly impact a small subset of the population, mainly pregnant women.
This is not to say it is benign -- the potential consequences are indeed horrifying. While no direct link has been found, the rise of cases of congenital microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which an infant's head is significantly smaller than the heads of other children, has surged during the Zika virus outbreak.
But it's important to put the numbers in some perspective -- last year, for example, the WHO notes there were more than 200 million malaria cases and about 438,000 malaria deaths. Such statistics are a reminder that in any calculation of risk, a country must draw up a plan appropriate based on the nature of the risk, while focusing efforts on keeping the probability of an outbreak as low as possible. In the case of Zika, that means thinking about pregnant women.
In homeland security, we do this all the time -- focusing efforts on prevention rather than panicking about the possible consequences. In the case of Zika, that means ensuring that pregnant women take seriously the recommendations from the WHO and CDC to not travel to one of the 20 countries in the Americas experiencing the virus. My personal advice would be that if you are pregnant, just don't travel there. And if you are pregnant and with someone who has just traveled there, the CDC has recommended that the partner use condom or that the couple refrain from sex throughout remainder of pregnancy.
As for other preventative measures, the United States is in a much better position than most other countries. For one, despite its flaws, our public health apparatus is sophisticated and capable of monitoring potential outbreaks and delivering medical services should the need arise. Our urban neighborhoods aren't as dense as those in the countries where the outbreak is happening, so mosquito control is easier. We widely use air-conditioning, and we tend to screen our windows. If the need arises, efforts to eradicate mosquitos can begin, as well as education efforts to limit large-scale breeding grounds, like water or puddles, can be initiated.
And, should there be limited outbreaks, our commitment to reproductive rights and access to contraception will assist. In America, we have that right. For many countries that do not provide access to birth control or abortion rights, it is fanciful to tell women not to get pregnant for up to two years as some countries have recommended. That's not a strategy -- that's wishful thinking.
Here at home, we have to focus on a practical strategy: Support efforts abroad; minimize the risk to citizens here; and keep our heads on straight. What we should not do at this stage is follow the Florida example and declare a state of emergency in certain counties based on three cases brought in from travelers.
The reality is that our world is too interconnected, travel is too easy, and mosquitos too airborne to think that we can keep this completely at bay. There is no wall to build; there isn't even a beautiful net. Put simply, there will be more cases of Zika in the United States. But that is no reason to panic.