Over the past few weeks, the Zika virus has begun to dominate news reports worldwide. It is not a fatal disease. Australia's federal Health Department says it is "generally not severe and lasts only a few days". Large outbreaks of the virus were observed in Pacific nations during the past three years, though they did not cause international alarm at the time. Nor is it yet established that the mosquito-borne disease causes microcephaly (extreme smallness of the brain) in babies, though it appears that Zika may be linked to this crippling birth defect.
Nonetheless, images of children with the misshapen heads that mark microcephaly provoke a powerful, emotional response. As a result, fear of the virus is spreading quickly and globally.
This is not to say that the recent public reaction to Zika is merely a moral panic. The epidemic is evolving rapidly and there are genuine concerns about its potential effects on pregnant women and their foetuses. The virus has a clear presence in about 25 countries, a number that is growing. This week, health authorities said the virus would almost certainly enter Australia via an infected traveller (though it would likely be limited to the country's tropical north). Overnight, a World Health Organisation committee met to decide whether the pandemic was a global emergency that required an urgent, co-ordinated, international response. In short, Zika is no trifling matter.
However, the virus's rather sudden visibility highlights a problem in the way governments allocate resources to combat perceived threats to public health and safety. Last year's Ebola virus pandemic in west Africa caused a similar reaction. The at times horrific symptoms of that highly contagious disease – bleeding from the nose and mouth – as well as its high death rate sparked urgent demands from the community to contain it. Western governments responded with strict quarantine measures and announced funding to help develop a cure or vaccine.
Yet some public health experts criticised the Ebola panic, questioning why the virus was receiving so much attention. They pointed out that governments continued to neglect other, far deadlier diseases, such as cholera, malaria and tuberculosis. The death tolls of those diseases dwarf that of Ebola, but research funding has remained relatively scant, almost certainly because their victims tend to be confined to poverty-stricken nations.
On the other hand, the amount of money spent fighting viruses such as Ebola is itself dwarfed by the sums allocated to counterterrorism, even though terrorist attacks pose a relatively minuscule threat to public safety in Western countries. Nonetheless, because such attacks, or at least the fear of them, remain a perennial subject of political debate, the public funds flow freely. Terrorism can, of course, wreak significant damage, particularly to the perception of public order, and should be countered where possible. Yet there is little evidence that governments dispassionately analyse risks to public safety and allocate public resources accordingly.
It's worth remembering this history of irrational budgeting in coming weeks, as the Zika crisis is debated. It's also worth remembering an old policymaking adage: that funds directed at a hazard that kills few are sometimes better spent on one that kills many.