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US Prepares for Zika Virus With Underfunded Health Agencies

  • Carol Pearson

Health officials from around the U.S. are meeting Friday to prepare for mosquito season and possible outbreaks of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The gathering at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta will bring together CDC experts and representatives from state and local health agencies involved in the U.S. Zika response.

While most cases of Zika in the U.S. have been imported from Latin America and the Caribbean, the mosquito that can carry the virus lives in many parts of the country. Zika is already a problem in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that the head of the CDC calls "ground zero" for the outbreak in North America.

As is the case in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Zika virus is new to North America, and the population has never been exposed to it. Air conditioning is more widely used in the U.S., and for this reason, public health experts say Zika shouldn't be as big a concern. Still, there's an uneasy feeling in the southern coastal states.

Help for U.S. South

Dr. James Versalovic, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and chief pathologist at Texas Children's Hospital, told VOA by Skype that he was already fielding calls about the virus.

The mosquito population in Houston and elsewhere in the South starts ramping up in April along with warmer weather. Versalovic said these states need the same type of help as Latin American and Caribbean countries: help controlling mosquitoes, help testing both mosquitoes and people who may be infected with the Zika virus, and help getting rid of debris like old tires where water can pool, providing breeding areas for the insects.

The big question is how much help can the CDC and state agencies provide. There's no doubt the need is urgent.

"There's enough evidence now to state clearly that the Zika virus is definitely associated with microcephaly, not only small heads but underdeveloped brains, and unfortunately, those babies are dealing with a lifetime of disability," Versalovic said.

Funding request

In February, the Obama administration asked Congress for $1.9 billion in special funding to fight Zika, but Congress has not yet acted on the request. J. Stephen Morrison, who oversees the global health program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said states are not prepared to fight the virus.

FILE - A Dallas County microbiologist sorts mosquitoes collected in a trap in Hutchins, Texas, that had been set up near the location of a confirmed Zika virus infection, Feb. 11, 2016.

FILE - A Dallas County microbiologist sorts mosquitoes collected in a trap in Hutchins, Texas, that had been set up near the location of a confirmed Zika virus infection, Feb. 11, 2016.

"Keep in mind that after the 2008-09 recession here in the United States ... fully 25 percent of American public health personnel at the state and local level were laid off," Morrison said. "Budgets were slashed and they lost their positions, and those positions have not been renewed. We’re operating from a depleted capacity."

Morrison said the funding request got caught up in politics. What's needed, he said, is "a consistent approach on global health security." He said outbreaks like the emergence of SARS or Zika should not be seen as episodic threats and dealt with individually.

"We commit a chunk of funds, and then we forget about that and we move on until the next occurs," he said.

Public education

Versalovic said the Baylor College of Medicine, the Texas Medical Center and community organizations have already started to discuss what needs to be done to help prevent a local outbreak, but mosquito control is expensive, testing must be in place, and public education campaigns need to begin to protect pregnant women and their unborn children.

A study from the Harvard University School of Public Health shows that most Americans know very little about the Zika virus, its means of transmission and its link to microcephaly, which underscores the need for public education campaigns.

With summer coming to the Northern Hemisphere, Morrison said time is of the essence.

“I fear that in six or 12 months in poor communities, particularly in the southern coast of the United States and in Puerto Rico, where Zika is sweeping the country, ... that you're going to see some really significant numbers ... of microcephalic infants and of paralysis," he said. At that point, there will be questions about "why didn't we do more when we knew what was coming."