Survey: Americans know about Zika, but not U.S. global health efforts

A woman covers her mouth outside her home while city workers fumigate to combat the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus in El Salvador, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

Since 2010, the percentage of Americans who say they have heard “a lot” or “some” about U.S. global health efforts has dropped by 57 percent, according to a survey released last Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This downward trend is in stark contrast to the recent increase in attention to specific global health crises, like the Zika outbreak, said Liz Hamel, one of the study’s authors and director of the Foundation’s public opinion and survey research team.

“It’s kind of a striking dichotomy, that those two things are happening at the same time,” said Hamel in an interview with Humanosphere. She added that the decrease in visibility of global health efforts is no surprise to those who follow these trends.

“I think we know that [global health]is one of the things that the U.S. public doesn’t pay as much attention to.”

The Zika outbreak, however, seems to have captured the public’s interest. Eight in 10 Americans say they have at least heard or read something about the Zika, according to the survey’s findings, and 23 percent say they have heard or read “a lot.”

Figure 18

“Most people have a least heard something [about Zika]in the news,” Hamel said. “Most people know that it’s transmitted through mosquitoes, and that it can be transmitted sexually, and most people correctly answer that it can’t be transmitted by shaking hands. So some of the key elements to that story are definitely breaking through.”

Six in 10 Americans also know about the connection between the Zika virus and birth defects in children born to infected mothers, which was confirmed by the CDC earlier this month. In light of this connection, concern has grown over the lack of assistance to women making family planning and preventive health decisions in developing countries affected by Zika.

When asked about the U.S. government’s role in helping these women, Americans who had heard about Zika were split on the issue; one-third said the U.S. government is doing enough, another third said it isn’t doing enough, and most of the remaining respondents said they didn’t know enough to decide.

The survey did find that Democrats are more likely to say the U.S. government is not doing enough (45 percent), compared to 33 percent of independents and 19 percent of Republicans.

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation (2016)

Although the CDC and WHO have issued recommendations for women in Zika-affected countries to simply not get pregnant, many of these women live in countries where abortions are illegal and contraceptives are either prohibited (e.g., El Salvador) or relatively inaccessible. Critics of the recommendations also point out that more than 30 percent of Latin American women report having been a victim of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, further denouncing the suggestion that women choose to delay pregnancy.

As the Zika virus continues to spread throughout the continent, federal health officials in the U.S. will soon have to decide whether to issue the same recommendation to American women to delay pregnancy.

Some disease experts have argued that the best method of preventing Zika-related birth defects in babies is to avoid conception, the New York Times reported. Women’s health specialists, meanwhile, say the government should not tell women what to do with their bodies, and have pointed out that most babies conceived during Latin America’s Zika epidemic have been born healthy.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com