The global spread of the Zika virus and its links to severe birth defects have yet to worry most Americans, and few are taking measures to limit their exposure to the mosquito-borne disease, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Two-thirds of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” worried about Zika infecting them or a family member, while one-third are at least “somewhat worried.” Fewer Americans are concerned about Zika infections today than were worried about the deadly Ebola epidemic at its height.
The two viruses are fundamentally different, of course. The United States experienced a few isolated cases of Ebola carried into the country by international travelers. The virus was spread only through close human contact, but an infection could lead to severe fever, vomiting, diarrhea and likely death.
There already are hundreds of travel-related Zika cases in the United States, a disease spread primarily through mosquito bites. About 80 percent of people infected never show symptoms, and those who do generally suffer mild fever and joint pain. The biggest danger of the Zika virus lies in its ability to cause severe birth defects in developing fetuses, including a condition called microcephaly, in which the brain fails to develop fully. The virus is also linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nervous system illness that causes muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
Despite those risks, the new Post-ABC poll finds that two-thirds of the public say they are waiting to see whether any personal action will be necessary. U.S. public health officials have repeatedly warned that Americans — especially pregnant women — should avoid mosquitoes this summer and take steps to eliminate their breeding grounds.
Among the 27 percent who are taking steps to limit their exposure, about half in this group are arming themselves with bug spray, the most common response, while just under a quarter are staying indoors or draining standing water to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds.
The poll finds concern about Zika is no higher among groups that may face greater personal risk, including women in their prime child-bearing years. Sixty-four percent of women ages 18 to 39 say they are not too worried about themselves or a family member being infected, and 73 percent are waiting to see whether personal prevention efforts are necessary. And along the Gulf Coast and in Southwest states that are considered at higher risk of outbreaks, levels of concern are slightly higher — 36 percent, compared with 31 percent in other states — but still most are unconcerned.
Men and women express roughly similar levels of worry about the virus. But a striking gap exists in the perceived risk of Zika when it comes to race and ethnicity. While 44 percent of non-white Americans, including 46 percent of Hispanics, say they are worried that they or a family member will contract the virus, only 27 percent of whites feel the same. Concerns also are higher among Americans with a high school education or less (41 percent) than among those who have completed some college (32 percent) or are college graduates (22 percent).
“Honestly, I’m not really thinking about it at all,” said Justine Vansant, 18, a certified nurse assistant who lives on the west coast of Florida, where the governor has dedicated tens of millions of dollars in emergency funding to prepare for Zika. “Should I be worried about it? I was more worried about Ebola than the Zika virus, and that wasn’t a big deal, either.”
That’s not to say that no one is worried.
Ricardo Davalos, 23, who lives with his parents in central California, says Zika has been a topic of constant conversation in the family. His parents were born in Mexico, where the virus is spreading locally, and they travel there regularly. As a biology major who just graduated from college, Davalos probably knows more about the virus and its potential to cause birth defects than the average American.
“I’ve talked to my parents about the importance of not having still water around the house and of using insecticide,” he said. His two older sisters, who also live in the area, are also concerned, he said. Both are married, and one sister has two children.
Health officials are monitoring nearly 500 pregnant women infected with Zika in the United States. At least seven women in the United States have delivered babies with birth defects, and five others lost or terminated pregnancies because their fetuses suffered brain damage from the virus, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Puerto Rico, which has been hardest hit by Zika, has reported one case of microcephaly from a miscarriage. CDC Director Tom Frieden recently said Puerto Rico could have hundreds of microcephaly cases in the coming year because of high infection rates.
The Zika virus has spread to more than 40 countries, primarily in South America and the Caribbean.
In a separate poll published Thursday, the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that most Americans aren't too concerned in general about Zika. The Kaiser poll also found much greater perceived personal threat among Hispanics. Fifty-two percent of Hispanics who have heard or read anything about the virus say they are “very worried” that they or someone in their family will be affected, compared with 36 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of whites.
Meanwhile, the Post-ABC poll found Americans express measured confidence in the federal government’s ability to respond to a Zika outbreak in the United States, similar to other recent viral scares such as Ebola and H1N1 “swine flu.” Two-thirds say they are at least somewhat confident in the government’s capabilities, though only 18 percent are “very confident.”
That confidence is fairly consistent across groups, including 64 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats who feel at least somewhat confident. People living in urban areas are more confident in the government (75 percent) than those in the suburbs (63 percent) or rural areas (56 percent).
Nearly three-quarters of Americans also say that Congress should approve a $2 billion request from the Obama administration to help prepare for and prevent the spread of Zika in the United States.
“You don’t want to wait until something happens that you turn around and regret,” said Dawn Hocking, 62, of El Paso, who has been taking a number of measures around her home to keep herself and her five grandsons away from mosquitoes this summer. “They spend money on a lot of things that are a lot more ridiculous. You’re talking about the health of kids.”
But there is far less agreement on the urgency of approving funds — 46 percent support funding and say it should be authorized immediately, while about a quarter support funding but say Obama and Republicans should first agree on budget cuts to offset Zika spending.
The White House requested the funds in February, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill have yet to approve a dollar. Senate Democrats this week blocked a $1.1 billion Zika-virus funding package drafted by congressional Republicans, saying the bill contained language aimed at undermining Planned Parenthood and environmental regulations.
The ongoing partisan deadlock has raised questions about whether Congress will heed the increasingly dire warnings from public health officials and provide new funds to combat the Zika virus before lawmakers leave Washington next month for an extended congressional recess.
With no aid in sight from the federal government, local officials around the country have had to prepare as best they can for the possibility of Zika cases in their regions. The task has fallen to a patchwork of state and local programs that have a huge disparity in financial reserves and manpower. Some well-funded districts have helicopters and fleets of trucks to help combat mosquitoes; some places have no resources at all.
In the Post-ABC poll, Americans of all political persuasions agreed that Congress should allocate money for the nation’s Zika response — 80 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents. Partisan divisions are more apparent when asked whether funding should be approved immediately or wait for an agreement on other budget cuts. Most Democrats support immediate spending (57 percent), but that drops to 43 percent among independents and 34 percent among Republicans, mirroring the battle debate playing out in Washington.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted June 20-23 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.