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Doctors Urge Congress to Fund Zika Research, Preparation

  • Carol Pearson

The mosquito breeding season is getting underway in the U.S., and with it has come a growing concern about the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Dozens of organizations joined the March of Dimes on Tuesday in urging Congress to approve an emergency funding measure to protect pregnant women and to promote research on the Zika virus.

"Zika virus is on our nation’s doorstep. It is up to us to close the door," said Dr. Edward McCabe, senior vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes Foundation.

McCabe's remarks came during a teleconference in which he and others implored lawmakers to provide immediate, emergency funding. "We have only weeks to prepare before the mosquitoes, and perhaps the virus, will get ahead of us," he said.

Zika is linked to microcephaly, which causes a spectrum of birth defects, miscarriages and deaths in infants, as well as paralysis in adults. In January, the World Health Organization called the virus an international public health emergency because of its link to microcephaly.

President Barack Obama asked Congress in early February for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan responded in late March by saying the federal government has "plenty of money" and could use emergency funds left over from Ebola programs to fight Zika. But the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health say that money already has been allocated to prevent another Ebola pandemic.

Pregnant women have been cautioned to wear protective clothing and use insect repellent to try to avoid getting mosquito bites. But Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists noted that "50 percent of pregnancies in this country are unintended."

In an interview with VOA, Lawrence pointed out that the virus is also sexually transmitted. "Contraception is a very important part of the multipronged attack in protecting women" against a virus for which there are "no treatment options and a lot of uncertainty," Lawrence said at the news conference.

Agency cutbacks

Associations representing state and local health departments also signed the petition. Dr. Oscar Alleyne, senior adviser for public health programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told VOA, "Many health departments have seen reduced funding, reduced budgets over the course of time, whether it’s for vector control or normal surveillance activities. That just makes us a weaker infrastructure to combat this particular threat and other threats like it."

James Blumenstock, chief program officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, also made that point during Tuesday's news conference. He said funding and positions with public health programs have been severely cut over the years, which is another reason that emergency funds are needed.

Because of what they see as an urgent need, 68 patient advocacy and health organizations have added their voices to those of the federal health agencies and Obama in petitioning Congress for new funding to help slow the spread of Zika and to finance programs to develop and test a vaccine.

The House of Representatives returns from recess April 12.