With at least nine known cases of the Zika infection in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott was right to declare a health emergency Wednesday in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Lee and Santa Rosa counties, where the infections were detected.
The cases, including two in Hillsborough, have stoked legitimate fears about a virus that's linked to brain deformities in unborn babies. Although the Zika virus is frightening, particularly because there are so many unknowns, state officials must take care not to let proper caution morph into panic.
The governor's order gives new authority and responsibility to Florida's embattled surgeon general, Dr. John Armstrong, which he must wield wisely. He is charged with determining the resources his Department of Health needs from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect the public. He is also to direct Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to spray for mosquitoes in residential areas of the four counties.
Armstrong cannot afford to fail. He should lead by ensuring that the state's health professionals learn everything they can about the virus, have all the resources they need and fully disclose what they know — and what they don't — to the public. The best way to fight Zika in Florida is with accurate information.
In turn, the Department of Health should act judiciously and refrain from overreactions such as barring travelers into Florida from infected regions or haphazardly quarantining travelers.
Zika is primarily spread by infected mosquitoes. This week, public health officials in Dallas learned that the disease also can be spread through sex with an infected person. According to the CDC, most people with Zika will not get sick and may not even realize they carry the virus. But one in five infected people will develop a mild illness that may be marked by fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. Symptoms typically last about two to seven days after a person is bitten. There is no vaccine.
Zika is not new, having surfaced before in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Still, the virus remains largely a mystery to scientists. Concerns about Zika began to mount recently when a startling number of babies in Brazil born to women infected with the virus were found to have microcephaly, a condition in which a baby's head is smaller than other infants of the same sex and age. Although there has been no scientific link, public health experts warn pregnant women who live in areas where Zika infections are prevalent to take extreme caution.
This week, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency, a smart move that puts the global community on notice to help with prevention, detection and eradication of the virus. So far, there are no known cases of locally transmitted Zika in the continental United States. Florida's nine cases are all linked to international travelers. The state's proximity to the affected regions, large numbers of tourists from those areas and Florida's hot and humid climate make it a prime candidate for the spread of Zika. That is why it is so important to get ahead of a possible outbreak.
This is not the first time Florida has faced such an issue. State public health officials ably handled threats from the West Nile and Ebola viruses. Now, as in each of those situations, steady leadership and a commitment to prevention and transparency will help steer the state through the crisis.
Floridians also can be their own best advocates by keeping properties free of mosquito-breeding grounds, using insect repellent and wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants in areas where the Zika virus is spreading. Above all, health officials and the public should remain calm. Presenting accurate information about the virus and knocking down myths will likely be the most effective tools as Florida prepares to combat Zika.