A mosquito doesn’t care who it’s biting.
Yet the spread of diseases like Zika, which is now said to cause a grave birth defect, carries an outsized risk for poor people. That’s because “poverty equates to poor quality housing, in addition to uncollected garbage and standing water in poor neighborhoods that allow certain insects to breed nearby,” wrote Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and microbiologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, in an essay for the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
Part of why the Zika outbreak has been so widespread in Brazil is because many homes don’t have screens on windows and doors. That’s true, too, in many low-income neighborhoods where the Zika risk is considered higher in the United States.
There are no known locally transmitted cases of Zika in the U.S.—that is, no one has gotten it directly from a mosquito in the States. But health officials have identified several cities with environmental factors that put them at a moderate to high risk for possible epidemics this summer. Population density, the presence of the mosquito that spreads Zika, and high temperatures all intensify the probability of local transmission—this is why places like Miami, Orlando, and Houston are all considered high risk. As warm weather approaches in the United States, conditions are quickly becoming favorable for mosquito species that can spread Zika, yellow fever, dengue, and other serious illnesses.
Hotez also points to the poorest urban areas of coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Florida as particularly at-risk. “This could be a catastrophe to rival Hurricane Katrina or other recent miseries that disproportionately affect the poor,” he wrote in an essay for The New York Times on Friday. Which means that scientists and doctors shouldn’t be the only officials scrambling to plan for a potential public-health crisis. Because a vaccine for Zika won’t be developed in time for this year’s mosquito season—if ever—Hotez says aggressive mosquito-control and environmental cleanup is urgently needed, especially in poor urban areas.