Opinion

Turning to The Government for Advice on Zika

Headlines about the Zika virus are everywhere, but many Americans still want more guidance on what to do about it.

Although US health officials have tread lightly when it comes to advising women to avoid pregnancy due to health risks—the US government has never advised against pregnancy in the case of Zika or other outbreaks—a new survey by PSB Healthcare suggests it is time to re-examine that approach. (The national survey reached 1,200 respondents, and was conducted June 7 – 10, 2016. For more information, visit this link.)

In fact, there’s more comfort with government advice on avoiding pregnancy than you might expect. We found a fifth (21 percent) said it was “absolutely” appropriate for the government to issue such advice, compared to 9 percent who said it was absolutely inappropriate. A clear majority (62 percent) find it appropriate to some degree, compared to fewer (38 percent) who find it inappropriate.

Other potential Zika-related government actions are considered even more acceptable. Clear majorities consider the government spraying pesticides on private or public property, or advising people to spray their own properties to be acceptable (73 percent, 78 percent, and 75 percent, respectively). Travel or vaccine advice, not specifically tied to Zika, are more acceptable still (86 percent and 80 percent acceptable).

This puts most Zika advice and actions alongside other very familiar—and acceptable—government warnings. Warnings to evacuate during bad weather, or avoid unhealthy or dangerous products and food are considered very acceptable roles for the government. Even “requirements” (as opposed to advice) on seat belts and children’s bike helmets are considered appropriate by most (77 percent and 75 percent acceptable).

Given this list, pregnancy advice—while more acceptable than not—is not surprisingly bottom tier. Only one other, both highly personal and highly political government involvement rivals it: advice on healthy eating. Still, even here a majority find it an appropriate action for the government (64 percent).

Perhaps public desire for more advice on Zika should not be surprising, given widespread concern about Zika. According to our survey, 56 percent of Americans said they are concerned or very concerned about Zika, with little variation by gender or geography.

After reading a short description of the virus, even more (72 percent) said they were concerned. Women of all ages were particularly concerned, as were younger men, probably because of their closeness to concerns about birth defects.

But what perhaps is surprising is the openness to a wide variety of government advice on the personal and inconvenient. Even at a time when trust in government is at historic lows, and seemingly every issue can become politically charged, Americans want more government input on keeping safe and healthy. On Zika, like other potential health crises, we should not let fear of controversy or worries about government overreach get in the away of good, scientifically-backed advice.

Jonathan Kay is Global Head of Healthcare at Penn, Schoen and Berland. 

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