Zika is a pretty rotten deal. The mysterious and potentially crippling mosquito-borne virus has spread like brushfire across the hemisphere. It has infected untold thousands of people throughout the Americas, and been disputably linked to a horrific spike in birth defects in Brazil.
The virus is still an enigma. Zika's greater health impact on people —and the animal kingdom—is still just being discovered. That's what makes it so frightening. Zika is an unknown. It's foreign. It's the wolf in the woods.
In the U.S., Zika has already achieved killer bee notoriety. Like the Africanized honey bee fear of the 1980s, Americans watch the news with a sense of dread, waiting for the foreign threat to decimate the populations of Miami and Texas.
But similar to other exotic plagues, Zika seems scarier the farther away you get from it. That's why my friends in New York, where are there are 0 reported cases, seem to be fretting more about the virus than my friends in Central America, which has one of the fastest-growing infection rates in Latin America.
"People here are afraid of gangs, not Zika," Salvadoran feminist Joshi Leban, 23, told me this week. "Until Zika starts killing people in large numbers, it's just not going to be an issue of great concern."
In other words, it's not Zika she's worried about when she looks over her shoulder in the street.
With the exception of the possible link to microcephaly, Zika isn't even the scariest mosquito-borne virus in the region. Dengue, chikungunya, malaria and yellow fever all have much higher fatality rates than Zika, which doesn't even show symptoms in most cases.
And that's not mentioning all the other nasty viruses and bacterias that are lurking in water glasses and undercooked hamburgers across Latin America. Personally, I've had typhoid, hepatitis A, giardia, and dengue, to name a few of tropical ailments that have helped acquaint me with the inside of Central America bathrooms over the years. The point is, people get sick. And if an ailment doesn't kill you or someone you love, chances are it eventually becomes the butt of jokes you tell.
Zika is already becoming a subject of memes and fodder for puns in Latin America.
In Brazil, the country that offered Zika a beachhead into the western hemisphere in 2014, carnival goers this week are dressing up like cans of bug repellant and the Aedes aegpyti mosquitoes that transmit the virus.
Others are going as sexy exterminators:
Scantily clad partygoers, meanwhile, have turned the health threat into a playful and defiant hashtag, taunting the mosquitos to bite.
Zika is also the stuff of memes:
(When you want to drink outside, but protect yourself from Zika)
(Mosquito 1: Are you carrying Zika or Chikungunya? Mosquito 2: Just dengue. I hate being out of fashion).
On Brazilian social media, young women—perhaps half in jest—question whether Zika could improve their ability to negotiate condom use with men.
"If you need to convince him (to use a condom), just tell him that Zika's an STD and you're not sure if you have it…men need to be scared into using condoms," says Gizah Santos.
"If you want to avoid getting pregnant, just bring up the cost of raising a child. You don't need Zika for that!" says Alessandra Condessa.
While Latin America's ability to laugh at threats is endearing and refreshing, serious scientist types are warning that the mosquitos might have the last laugh if governments don't take the issue more seriously.
Zika is still an emerging threat, and one that poor governments are ill-equipped to deal with, says Nicaraguan epidemiologist Leonel Argüello. He says countries like Nicaragua, where Zika is just establishing a foothold, "need to be more aggressive" against the virus and do more to prepare themselves for a worsening crisis.
Zika might not be as malicious as other mosquito-borne diseases, but it can still have serious and long-term effects on the country's health, Argüello says.
In other words, Zika is a problem, not just a punchline.
Everyone needs to work together to eliminate pesky mosquito breeding grounds, which means picking up trash and not allowing standing water to pool in your yard or patio.
That's the good thing about a little fear. If it's enough to create a sense of urgency, without becoming paralyzing or debilitating, it can motivate people to act. And fighting Zika is a four-for; by working to eradicate the mosquito that carries the virus, Latin America will also be attacking more deadly diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. That's fighting four diseases for the the price of one.
So be afraid, Latin America. But not too afraid—just scared enough to act.