Federal Budget Cuts Could Be 'Catastrophic' for Zika Control

Megan Brooks

May 31, 2017

With summer around the corner, public health officials in the United States are gearing up to combat the threat posed by the Zika virus.

In the coming months, the threat of Zika "will get worse, and the consequences of inaction are very real for pregnant women and their babies," Claude Jacob, president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), warned today during a media briefing.

NACCHO, along with the Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC) and the March of Dimes, held the briefing to discuss the threat posed by the Zika virus this summer.

Zika infections continue to be "widespread in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and of course we had outbreaks in Miami and Brownsville, Texas, last year, and we expect more local outbreaks of Zika in this country, the mainland as well as other territories," said Paul Jarris, MD, chief medical officer of the March of Dimes. The Southern and Gulf Coast regions in the United States are particularly vulnerable to Zika outbreaks.

When it comes to Zika, "we absolutely need to maintain vigilance and funding for Zika as it spreads and we learn more about the effects on pregnancy and newborns," said Dr Jarris.

It is now known that Zika is responsible not only for microcephaly but also a spectrum of physical and neurologic effects on the fetus and newborn, he explained. "It's not just spread through mosquitos but also through sexual activity, and it can remain in body fluids for weeks or even months. We know that it causes brain damage, and we are learning that even newborns who appear normal at birth later suffer deterioration in the weeks or months.

"We also recently had a case report about of an adolescent who underwent neurologic changes after a Zika infection. This is a single case, but it's concerning that this virus may affect developing adolescents," said Dr Jarris.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thus far in 2017, 121 cases of Zika have been reported on the US mainland, and an additional 498 have been reported in US territories. In 2016, 10% of the 250 women with confirmed Zika infection delivered a fetus or baby with a Zika-related birth defect.

Funding a Serious Issue

All members of the briefing panel agreed that combating Zika virus will be severely undermined as federal funding wanes.

President Trump's budget proposal eliminates $2.1 billion from the CDC's budget, cuts in half funding for the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Infectious Diseases program, and cuts the Public Health Emergency Preparedness program by $109 million. These cuts will have "lasting damage" to efforts to fight Zika, Jacob said.

Oscar Alleyne, senior advisor for public health programs at NACCHO, said, "Zika funds are not where they should be if we are serious about protecting the lives of people we serve in the community. Failing to fund Zika efforts can and will be catastrophic."

Zachary Thompson, director, Dallas County Health and Human Services and BCHC member, noted that "boots on the ground" from local health departments are key to getting ahead of Zika this summer, and that takes funding.

In Dallas, he said, a Zika task force is in place and holds monthly meetings. "This is going to be very time consuming in a localized outbreak setting," he noted, adding that continuous "education and reeducation" of the public regarding Zika and West Nile virus are needed. Health officials in Dallas are going "door to door to raise awareness" and to disseminate Zika information to high-risk populations and the general public, Thompson said.

No one can afford to be complacent when it comes to Zika, he said. His advice: "Use mosquito repellent all day every day" when outdoors.

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