The Zika virus exploded out of Brazilian slums at 21st-century speeds, and raced north into Central America and the Caribbean in a matter of months. A full-blown outbreak in the United States looks imminent.
This statistically small virus is part of a global insurgency that adapts rapidly to developments of human progress. It exploits cultural dynamics: rapid over-urbanization, a changing climate and increased levels of travel and economic activity among countries.
This narrative could just as easily describe the growth of international terrorism. And the same sort of well-crafted U.S. government-led strategy that was designed to combat transnational terrorism is needed to blunt this deadly mosquito-transmitted illness.
Disease-infected mosquitoes, like the fiercest of militants, are predatory and lethal. Actually more deadly. Mosquito-borne diseases — including malaria, dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus and yellow fever — claim more than 20 times the number of lives each year than all the fatal attacks from every terrorist organization combined, as a recent “Economist” article showed.
The Sept. 11 attacks led to the transformation of U.S. national security strategies to combat what they labeled as terror networks around the globe. Public attitudes shifted from complacency to action. General David Petraus oversaw the rewriting of the military’s counterterrorism playbook. Central to his strategy was using troops to draw in local communities as allies to help eliminate terrorism networks. The military theory to massive changes in policy, funding and military capability.
The Zika crisis now presents an opportunity to rewrite the U.S. public health playbook to defeat disease-carrying mosquitoes. Americans have treated the Zika virus as a foreign problem. Yet ignoring a crisis before it strikes is not in the national interest, nor is it sound policy.
The U.S. government and the World Health Organization are now scrambling to develop a coherent counter strategy against this elusive and rapidly-evolving threat. They should apply crucial lessons learned from the evolving fight against terrorism.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, compelled Western forces to recalibrate their approach to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Though large, expensive weapons systems dominated U.S. defense strategies during the Cold War, coalition forces quickly realized the importance of working with local populations, jump-starting war-torn economies and empowering local communities to root out terrorists on their own.
The same logic should apply to combating the Zika virus. The center of gravity in this fight must shift from large international bureaucracies or statewide mosquito-control agencies to local communities that can educate and support their populations to play a direct role in rooting out the enemy and defending against further disease transmission. Communities are most likely to know best how to adapt the best mosquito control practices for local strategies and tactics.
Washington can help mobilize the American public to develop a tightly woven fabric of local communities and response efforts across this theater of war. It can also help train and equip populations in other countries.
Three key actions would help the nation brace for impact.
First, the U.S. government and its allies must re-organize their forces. The World Health Organization recently admitted that its efforts had largely failed to stem the Zika outbreak. That means it’s up to Washington and other countries to train and equip local communities to wage Zika-fighting campaigns.
Communities have the most to gain and little time to organize. As the coalitions learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, they can become the critical ground force in this war against the Zika virus. With just a small level of support, governments, businesses, civic groups and neighborhoods can devise local initiatives to systematically eliminate mosquito breeding sites, identify and respond to mosquito hot-spots and enlist volunteers to scour neighborhoods for mosquito larvae. They can also identify and protect pregnant women, children and the elderly with insecticide-treated bed nets and window screens.
Once organized, communities can deploy safe mosquito control methods like passive traps and mosquito-repelling vegetation. They can also aim for a neighborhood culture of zero tolerance for trash, discarded vehicles and boats, old tires and open containers – all typical breeding sites for the Aedes species mosquito that transmits the Zika virus.
This strategic shift would allow large government agencies to focus on problem areas and target their limited resources more effectively. In areas where Zika transmission is expected to be severe, governments can deploy more aggressive tactics, including aerial spraying, new low-volume and reduced-risk spraying in Zika transmission sites. In addition, they can dispatch first-responder groups to cities and counties that need technical or emergency support. Priority should be given to Southern states and territories, particularly the Gulf states and Puerto Rico.
Second, the international community must broaden its definition of success. Counterterrorism policymakers were forced to address the underlying social, economic and even environmental conditions that give rise to, or provide recruiting grounds for, al Qaeda, and more recently, Islamic State. In the same manner, federal and state public health agencies as well as their counterparts throughout the Americas and the Caribbean must delve deeper into what conditions allow disease-transmitting mosquitoes to thrive. There are multiple disease-spreading species and many, including Zika’s host, exploit systemic challenges, including poverty, conflict, a warming climate, over-urbanization and lack of public-health education.
Of course, the scope of these problems can’t be addressed by resource-strapped mosquito-control agencies. A new coalition of international development agencies, civic organizations businesses and non-governmental organizations can help communities fight economic, political, social and environmental conditions that contribute to the spread of Zika.
Third, this global campaign must be fully funded. Defense-related and counterterrorism funding after the 9/11 attack grew to historic levels. At one point, the U.S. taxpayer was spending more than $2 billion a week in Iraq alone. Last week, the Senate passed a bill for $1.1 billion in funding for Zika efforts — dramatically lower than the $1.9 billion the White House had requested.
But the House of Representatives cut the funding still further, to $622 million. This is less than half of what the administration estimates would be needed to deploy new health workers in Puerto Rico, provide support for pregnant mothers throughout the Southern United States and the Caribbean and offer assistance to local health systems that would have to care for Zika patients and babies born with microcephaly.
Though it can be hard to prepare for any eventuality, Americans need to do so because a serious outbreak of the virus to hit the United States. A new, comprehensive, ground-up approach must be created to fight this new sort of transnational threat.
Grey Frandsen served as chief of staff of the State Department’s Office for Stabilization Operations after 9/11. He wrote the Defense Department’s guide for civilian-military collaboration in humanitarian emergencies. He now advises governments and institutions working to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.