Editorial Board

How to Fight Zika Virus

Outbreaks anywhere are a threat everywhere.

A good start.

Photographer: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

An emergency meeting in Geneva about an incurable tropical disease now “spreading explosively does not sound good. But in fact the World Health Organization’s swift response to the Zika virus is encouraging -- both in itself and as an example of how to respond to such outbreaks, which are likely to become more common in a warmer and more connected world.

Zika is a formerly rare disease that has now spread to Brazil and 22 other countries, nearly all in the Americas. A cousin of yellow fever, Zika is transported by mosquitoes and appears to afflict unborn children with a potentially crippling neurological disorder. When pregnant women contract the virus, it seems to put their babies at greater risk of microcephaly, a condition that includes smaller-than-normal skulls, stunted development and sometimes death.

The threat is not global; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for most Americans, Zika is “not something they need to worry about.” It’s one of the paradoxes of modern life: As climate change and globalization increase the occasions for anxiety, the need to keep perspective will only grow.

There are sensible steps to take against the Zika virus, or similar outbreaks in the future. One is to strengthen not just the WHO but public health operations in developing countries: They need the competence and resources to identify diseases quickly and respond aggressively. Avoiding travel to affected areas can also make sense -- in the case of Zika, for pregnant women or those who might become pregnant.

A more long-term response to Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses is to better control the pests that carry the disease. That’s all to the good: Those mosquitoes also spread dengue fever and yellow fever, plagues of poor nations that kill tens of thousands yet until now have failed to attract the resources or attention needed to eradicate them.

Increasingly, tropical disease is no longer confined to the tropics. That’s why a global response to these outbreaks -- as ominous as it may sound -- makes the most sense.