Zika on Our Doorstep
March 7, 2016 -- San Juan, Puerto Rico -- A new souvenir that no one wants may soon be making its way home with tourists after their beach vacations here: the Zika virus.
The mosquito-borne virus is expected to plow through Puerto Rico with little to slow its spread.
This island U.S. territory is $70 billion in debt, an amount its governor last year called “not payable.” Funding cuts have crippled public programs, leaving local health authorities shorthanded and without enough supplies.
Health authorities fear as many as 700,000 people could have Zika in Puerto Rico by the end of the year. With 15,000 pregnant women living here now, experts fear the virus will take a heavy emotional and financial toll.
Being infected with Zika during pregnancy appears to dramatically raise the risk of health problems in babies. The most devastating of these may be microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads and malformed brains.
Because Puerto Rico is a major tourist destination that is closely connected to the U.S. mainland, infectious disease experts are closely watching the climbing numbers of Zika infections here:
- Roughly 100 daily flights drop Americans at these balmy blue waters and spring break-ready beach bars.
- Nearly 40 cruise ships pass through the Port of San Juan each week, dropping off roughly a million tourists to shop and eat as they island hop through the Caribbean.
- About 90% of the people who fill the hotels here each year are Americans, according to the government-run Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
Puerto Ricans, too, often travel back and forth to the mainland U.S. “There’s a big traffic back and forth between Miami and New York and perhaps other cities, too,” says Robert Tesh, MD, an expert in emerging infectious diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“If they have a health problem in San Juan, it’s going to affect the [rest of the] U.S. as well,” he says.
President Obama has asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika at home and abroad. That includes $250 million for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program.