(This story originally was published in September, before Congress voted on Zika response funding.)
Blame it on Trump.
I used to blame everything on Dick Cheney. Now I blame everything on Donald Trump.
I was so absorbed covering our national high-chair king, who manages to dominate more news cycles than the Kardashians, that I wasn’t focused on those other dangerous, blitzkrieging ectoparasites, mosquitoes.
I had a political talk scheduled last week in Puerto Rico with my colleague Carl Hulse, the New York Times’s chief Washington correspondent. It wasn’t until a friend said, “Aren’t you scared of Zika?” that I realized the island was a hot zone for the horror-inducing virus. (I had followed the travails of a fellow Times reporter going to cover the Olympics in Rio; he asked the editors if they would pay for his sperm to be frozen but they declined.)
“Well,” I replied, “I’m not pregnant and I’m not planning on hooking up with anyone down there, so it won’t be a problem.”
My friend, who views the outdoors with the same antipathy as Woody Allen, wasn’t convinced.
“You can get Epstein-Barr,” she warned.
Ordinarily, I’m not a hypochondriac. But after the three-day trip to Puerto Rico, I was starting a publicity tour for my new book, “The Year of Voting Dangerously,” so the specter of any rogue virus was frightening.
I got in touch with my dermatologist, Tina Alster, who explained that Zika doesn’t cause Epstein-Barr. But the same mosquitoes that carry Zika also carry the dengue fever virus and the chikungunya virus, which has been linked to the paralysis-inducing Guillain-Barré syndrome. If I got Zika, it would probably only lead to a few days of fever and muscle aches. But you don’t want to go on Fox News to talk about Hillary Clinton with a fever and rash; trust me.
I began Googling.
I read that mosquitoes were linked to roughly 500,000 deaths in 2015, mostly from malaria. They kill so many people that Bill Gates is backing plans for a gene editing technology that could wipe out the entire species as a moral duty.
“Zika Cases in Puerto Rico Are Skyrocketing,” one Times story blared, noting: “The war against the Aedes aegypti mosquito carrying the virus is sputtering out in failure. … In Puerto Rico, officials believe thousands of residents — including up to 50 pregnant women — are infected each day.”
The story, written by Donald McNeil, reported that many Puerto Ricans do not protect themselves against mosquito bites because they think the threat is exaggerated. Feuds had broken out between federal and local health officials over the response, with the governor’s special adviser quitting in a huff.
Dr. Alster advised getting mosquito repellent with DEET and “bathing” in it, focusing especially on the ankles. She also suggested spraying a scarf with DEET and wearing it at all times.
I asked if I could just wear long sleeves and stockings.
“Not sure that stockings would prevent hungry mosquitoes,” she replied. “DEET is an acronym for N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide. If used at concentrations of 10 to 30 percent, it poses no problems when used on intact skin. I use it when I travel.”
I checked at the drugstore and online and most of the products seemed to proudly proclaim they were DEET-free.
I was going to ask Dr. Alster about some of the non-DEET lemon eucalyptus repellants for sale online. But I’ve known her long enough to know her motto is “Natural Schmatural.”
Was DEET scarier than Zika, I wondered, as I read about incidents of seizures, impaired cognitive function, and death associated with the repellent, developed for jungle warfare during World War II and used in Vietnam.
“There’s no doubt that if you used DEET every day for a long period of time, it would not be good,” Dr. Alster emailed me after I pestered her. “But in the short term, there is NO BETTER mosquito repellent. So if you want to minimize your risk of Zika or Chikungunya, use it!”
I did get nervous, however, when she told me that DEET would melt my nail polish. She also said not to use it on my face, because the increased blood flow on the face and the mouth/eye/nose openings enhances DEET absorption.
But Alster is an excellent doctor. So I went online and ordered Sawyer’s insect repellent with 30 percent DEET. I got one for Carl, too, but he refused to use it. He figured Zika would eventually make its way to the nation’s capital and he may as well get a jump on it. Then he headed for the pool.
He had begun mocking me as “Mosquito Lady.”
My anxiety amped up on the JetBlue flight, when gnats kept landing on my arms. “We’re in the insect version of ‘Snakes on a Plane,’” I hissed at Carl, who ignored me and stuck with Jack Reacher on his Kindle.
When we got to the San Juan airport, there were signs up warning that Zika infection could cause infants to be born with microcephaly, shrinking the head and damaging the brain.
The women I talked to in San Juan were torn. They hadn’t heard of enough cases to be in a panic. One said she knew someone who got dengue fever at the beach and suffered considerably. Another said she knew someone who got Zika and was hit with a low-grade fever and rash for a few days. These mothers seemed more worried about the consequences of using DEET every day on themselves and their children.
One man told me that one of his employees got chikungunya and his fingers were still swollen a year later.
Another mother said that her college-age son had a girlfriend whose own mother had insisted that he be tested for Zika before returning to Princeton — and her daughter — this fall.
A transplanted American woman from Georgia was worry-free — viruses are part of life, she said. But she did feel sad that her friends, who used to love coming to visit Puerto Rico, had now crossed it off their list.
A Puerto Rican judge told me dryly that Zika is spread only by female mosquitoes — “aggressive females.” I hadn’t heard that so I looked it up. It turns out that the males of the species are vegetarians who stick to eating fruit, leaving human meat alone.
I talked to people in the tourism business on the beautiful island — already in a decade-long economic slump and exodus of residents — who were distraught about the economic consequences of Zika. Some news reports calculate that $28 million in tourism will be lost through 2018, with hotels and restaurants awash in cancellations from conventions and Major League Baseball.
One top hotel manager I talked to was worried that the losses might be almost twice that much.
“This was a big place for weddings and honeymoons,” he grimaced. “Not as much any more.” He said his hotel had to tighten its budget while still maintaining a high level of service.
He paused and then concluded wistfully, “I think it’s OK because we have a lot of wind. And mosquitoes fly slowly so they can’t attack in the wind.” (The vampire flies do coast at only 1 to 1.5 miles an hour, so some people use house fans to shoo them off rather than insecticides.)
I followed Dr. Alster’s advice and doused my scarf and skin in DEET. It was disturbing to see it eat away my red nail polish and turn it mushy, staining my nails in a weird way. And the smell was so bad that humans, as well as bugs, did not want to come near me. No amount of jasmine perfume could cover it up.
I showered and scrubbed the DEET off as soon as I got back to the hotel every night.
Even though my room at the Condado Plaza Hilton had a gorgeous view, with a balcony perched over the Atlantic, I was too much of a scaredy-fraidy to open the doors and venture out.
All three days, I felt like things were crawling on my skin —a mosquito version of the movie “Arachnophobia.” But it was just an overactive imagination.
When I got back to D.C., Joe Biden was on the steps of the Capitol proclaiming Zika a national emergency and urging Congress to stop stonewalling a bill to fight the spread of the pathogen and develop a vaccine.
“Give us an up or down vote, straight, on Zika,” the vice president said. “People’s health, the well-being of unborn children, the health of the country at large, is at stake. Act.”
As was true with Ebola, we can be slow on the uptake with viruses. We often don’t take them seriously enough, especially when they first hit in disadvantaged parts of the world like Africa and the Caribbean. Look at the increase in yellow fever now.
Puerto Rico is pushing through the crisis, even as Congress dithers.
But Vice President Biden is right. The battle over a terrifying virus should not be a political football.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.