Mosquitoes, Zika and Other Diseases: Fighting the Epidemic of Suspicion

Mosquitoes, Zika and Other Diseases: Fighting the Epidemic of Suspicion

Several of my most miserable memories of childhood involve mosquitoes.

I was in Boy Scouts for several years, which meant summer camping in tents. These were not today’s fancy, almost-like-home tents. They were simple canvas contraptions mounted on polls; wind tunnels in breezy weather, rain barrels in stormy weather, and always, always, always, mosquito traps.

Like real-world traps, it was easy for the mosquitoes to get in. Getting out, however, was another matter. They’d fly to the peak of the tent, buzz around a bit, then descend to seek sustenance. Only when we happened to get lucky enough to swat one, or when one found an opportune moment for a snack, would they exit, either to the eternal blood bank of mosquito heaven or, dropping down in sated lethargy, out the flaps.

Of course, I knew enough to bring mosquito netting, but this was only useful at night. The netting was designed to be suspended above and tucked around my bedroll. While there was just enough space to sit inside it, the contraption wasn’t functional for sitters unless one’s sole purpose was to meditate.

It also seemed that mosquitoes were very skilled either at slipping inside it when I was setting it up, or in finding the parts of my skinny body that were pressed up against it while I slept.

The net result (if you’ll pardon the pun), was that I would be covered with bites all summer long.

Given this history, it might come as a surprise to read that I spent all of Wednesday morning listening to people talk about mosquitoes. More precisely, I was listening to experts talk about combatting mosquito-borne disease, particularly Zika.

One of the most interesting and perplexing of the topics of discussion was public outcry against certain strategies that have been adopted or are being considered to combat the Zika-bearing bugs.

In Miami-Dade County, for example, periodic aerial spraying to combat mosquitoes has been part of the arsenal for years. Yet when aerial spraying was expanded to combat the Zika outbreaks there, a significant and vociferous minority of residents rallied against it. Thoughtful presentations of the available science did not seem to give these opponents any pause. The evidence and argument were rejected amid shouts of ‘You’re poisoning us!”

What’s going on here?

There’s a lot of talk about a “post-truth society” of late. The idea is that one no longer can “fact check” or “truth test” claims and expect people to embrace one’s findings. Truth doesn’t matter anymore; only what people want to believe is true.

I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon. Human beings throughout the centuries have had a habit of clinging to demonstrably false propositions because of their familiarity, the sense of security they provide, or their lack of a call to action or change. Only in the last decade or so, for example, have we reached the point where nearly every smoker knows smoking is killing them, despite nearly a half century of data to that effect. And the terrifying rise in opioid overdoses and deaths makes clear that these addicts, even as they have watched friends die, find some way to believe that it still makes sense to shoot up or otherwise absorb the drug in potentially lethal doses.

What is somewhat new is what appears to be a decline in public respect for science and scientific inquiry.  Thus, when government experts, or experts working for the government, tell us that something is true, many of us are less inclined to believe it than we once might have been.

I’m going to explore this phenomenon in several upcoming posts. For now, let me leave you, dear Reader, with a thought about where we are, and how we need to think about the controversy over truth.

The disease of suspicion may be travel-related or locally originated. Either way, what we know is how easily it spreads in a crowded room of anxious people, or in the virtual corridors of social media. Fighting that disease will require better understanding of the vectors of its transmission and the hosts from whom it is transmitted. And it will require a concern for the patient, the body politic, that extends beyond its actual interests to its fears and its desires.

We’ll need more than the latest studies. We’ll need a bedside manner that understands and embraces our citizens’ pain and anxiety, meeting them where they are as we struggle together to address the ills in our natural and human environment.

It will be both a more time-consuming and a more emotionally draining approach to critical policy issues than we might wish. It may, however, prove to be the only way to combat the epidemic.

Materials from the Center for Municipal Research and Innovation Research Symposium on fighting Zika, held Wednesday, December 7, will be available here beginning Monday, December 19.