Dr. Esper Kallas shared a prediction about Zika with me earlier this year. And I could have made big bucks betting that unfortunately he’d be right.
Kallas, a leading Brazilian medical researcher at the University of São Paulo, told me back in January he expected Zika – the tropical mosquito-borne disease that has marauded through Brazil and South America – would soon be locally transmitted in the continental U.S.
“Global warming is something we can put in this equation,” Kallas said. “The increase in temperature may set the stage for the Aedes aegypti [mosquito] to spread northbound. I wouldn’t be much surprised to find in one year a local transmission of this virus.”
And the first site, he said, would most logically be Florida.
Kallas was borne out in just six months: The U.S.’s first four locally contracted Zika cases hit South Florida late last month. Two weeks later the number of such cases in Florida has climbed above 20 – with more than 400 total Zika infections in the state. Health officials finger a swath of Wynwood, north of downtown Miami, as a sort of ground zero.
To his credit, Florida Governor Rick Scott has been urging us – and Washington – to gird for this since last February, when he declared a public health emergency due to the first travel-related Zika cases arriving here. It was warranted: Although Zika’s symptoms are largely benign, it can cause serious birth defects like microcephaly in infants born to infected mothers.
But Kallas’ foresight is a reminder that Scott and Florida could have and should have been even farther out ahead of this. Not just months but years ahead.
As in five years ago, when Scott slashed Florida’s mosquito-control budget by 40 percent and forced the shutdown of the state’s mosquito research lab.
Problem is, avoiding that folly would have required Scott to acknowledge global warming. Climate change. Greenhouse effect. The phenomena he dismisses – and which state employees under him have been warned not to utter – but which almost all scientists (97 percent, according to surveys) now agree are legit and are turning the planet into a combination sauna-hot tub.
As Kallas pointed out to me, it would be hard to explain the proliferation of Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti outside their traditional tropical habitats without taking into account global warming. It’s the likeliest factor that’s allowed these hothouse vermin to roam comfortably above the Tropic of Cancer.
And Kallas and his Brazilian colleagues didn’t just start connecting these dots this year. As far back as 2010 they argued “the link between global warming and dengue-carrying mosquitoes showing up in southern Europe and the southern U.S. was very apparent.”
The year before, in fact, scientists in Malaysia had found that increased global temperatures were rolling out a migratory red carpet for mosquitoes like Aedes aegypti – and doubling the speed at which viruses like dengue, chikungunya and Zika can incubate inside them.
So when Scott took office in 2011, scientists in Latin America, southeast Asia and other regions that best know the effects of global warming – and the insects that most riotously exploit it – had already laid it out. Scott had ample reason not only to preserve but ratchet up resources for spraying and studying mosquitoes in Florida, a peninsula that kisses the tropical borderline.
Instead, Scott named former Jacksonville shipyard executive Herschel Vinyard Jr. as his Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) director. Under Vinyard, according to state records and former employees, DEP staff were ordered not to use terms like global warming and climate change.
That denial may well have put Florida asleep at the gate as Aedes aegypti kept buzzing into the Greater Antilles, the Florida Keys and eventually Wynwood – all the time calling back to their buddies down south, “Come on up! You don’t even need a jacket anymore!”
After Politico last week raised the issue of Scott’s 2011 mosquito-control cuts, the Governor insisted his administration has revived that spending in years since. It has, but in fact the overall budget increase during his governorship has been paltry.
And Scott has yet to acknowledge the climate phenomena whose names shall not be spoken.