by Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a federal effort to combat the spread of the Zika virus, the Senate voted May 17 to allocate $1.1 billion to fight it in the United States.
The funding is less than the $1.9 billion the White House recommended, but it’s more than the $622 million the House says it would spend — provided the money is taken from other federal health programs. Republicans in charge of the House believe money should be pulled from research in Ebola, the previous disease to throw a scare into the public.
It is uncertain how the impasse will play out, given the shortened congressional calendar in a presidential election year.
The World Health Organization has declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has affected between 440,000 and 1.3 million people in Brazil alone, a global public health emergency.
Areas of the United States most at risk for Zika include all of Florida and those states along the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, including Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. However, the mosquito responsible for transmitting Zika, the aedes aegypti, is believed to be able to survive throughout the South and into the mid-Atlantic.
A spokesman for Mercy Hospital in Miami said virtually all U.S. hospitals are following the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on Zika.
The CDC has information for clinicians on dealing with pregnant women, women of child-bearing age, infants and children, sexual transmission; protocols on diagnosis, treatment and reporting, the need for a U.S. Zika pregnancy registry, testing algorithms for children and pregnant women. Downloadable fact sheets for parents, pregnant women, healthcare providers and health departments are on the CDC website, www.cdc.gov.
“Health care providers are encouraged to report suspected cases to their state or local health departments to facilitate diagnosis and mitigate the risk of local transmission. State or local health departments are encouraged to report laboratory-confirmed cases to CDC through ArboNET, the national surveillance system for arboviral disease,” the CDC says. Several of the guidance documents were updated the third week of May.
No vaccine has been developed to prevent Zika upon contraction of the virus. That is part of the aim of the federal spending plan.
No local Zika cases have been reported in the United States yet. There have been travel-associated cases, but many regard local cases as inevitable. Texas health officials said May 17 they expect the first cases of mosquito-borne Zika in June or July. The state’s biggest concerns are coastal areas and border towns — especially the “colonias” populated by poor Hispanics near the Mexican border where the water supply and infrastructure are well below the standard over much of America. About 30 cases of Zika have been confirmed in the United States to date, but all are said to have been travel-related.
There is a climate-change aspect to the Zika issue. Mosquitoes carrying the virus can survive farther in the Northern Hemisphere than before thanks to warming temperatures, which is what has many in Congress worried; senators from Southern states were key in winning approval of the Senate bill, which won on a 68-29 vote. Democrats were unanimously behind the bill, and they were joined by 22 Republicans.
Already, one death has been attributed to Zika in Puerto Rico, and a Puerto Rican woman miscarried in her second trimester, and the unborn child showed signs of microcephaly, the disease commonly suffered by children infected in the womb. The commonwealth of Puerto Rico cut health funding by $42 million last year and is now battling the Zika virus spreading on the island as well as default on its debt obligations. Puerto Rico has only 925 confirmed cases — including 128 pregnant women — of Zika infection to date, but health officials anticipate that 20 percent of the island’s residents will contract the virus this year.
Zika can be transmitted through sexual relations as well as through mosquito bites. This has led to some to call on the Catholic Church to consider relaxing its prohibition of abortion if a pregnant woman contracts Zika, or to allow the use of artificial contraceptives to prevent transmission of the virus. A District of Columbia woman had an abortion after she became pregnant while vacationing in the “Zika zone.”
In a news conference Feb. 17 on his way back to Rome after a six-day visit to Cuba and Mexico, Pope Francis was asked if, regarding Zika, the use of artificial contraceptives or abortion could be considered “a lesser evil” when the baby had a high risk of birth defects. The concept of a “lesser evil” may apply to artificial birth control in such cases, he said — but cannot not used without any discernment, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said later.
But “abortion is not a lesser evil — it’s a crime,” Pope Francis said. It is the deliberate taking of an innocent human life. “It’s an absolute evil.”
The Zika infection also can be spread through blood transfusions. In February, the LifeServe Blood Center in Iowa banned donors from giving blood for 28 days after returning from travel to Zika-affected areas.
One Kansas couple, Gwen and Scott Hartley, have two daughters with microcephaly. They were told by doctors the first girl wouldn’t live past the age of 1. She’s now 15. The other daughter is 10. Both also have dwarfism. They Hartleys also have an 18-year-old son who was born without microcephaly.
There are about 28,000 children born in the United States each year with microcephaly. In a 2015 posting on her blog “The Hartley Hooligans,” Gwen Hartley said she is often sounded out by parents of children with special needs about whether they can be up to the demands of a parenting a special-needs child. Her response: Yes. “Know why I know this? Because I know you were given this life for a reason. I truly believe you were chosen to be your child’s parent.”