Fighting Zika in Georgia moves forward with $5m CDC award

Georgia will receive more than $5 million in federal funding to combat the Zika virus and its health risks, like microcephaly. It’s a portion of a $60 million pool that Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded to states around the county as they brace for more infections while the summer heats up.

This round of funding will be available Aug. 1. It comes after the Obama Administration's request for $1.9 billion to fight Zika stalled in Congress.

The money will help the Georgia Department of Public Health buy equipment and hire personnel, said Patrick O’Neal GDPH director of health protection. The state has built testing and monitoring capabilities from the ground up over the last several months, he said. But more is needed as understanding of the virus unfolds, especially how it affects pregnant women.

“Georgia is probably more prepared than many states that have to face Zika, but we’re still learning a heck of a lot,” O’Neal said.

For example, O’Neal said new evidence suggests that just because a child is born without microcephaly, a birth defect related to Zika, that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods. Some children born to Zika-infected mothers might experience neurological damage such as learning disorders or hearing loss that could take a while to become evident.

Without a vaccine or antiviral drug, mosquito control is the only strategy to prevent Zika, O’Neal said.

But still the biggest problem with Zika is the unknown. With 80 percent Zika-infected people not showing symptoms, its spread can fly somewhat under the radar.

Right now O’Neal said GDPH’s equipment and staff can handle testing people who think they brought Zika back from other countries, but local transmission is a different story.

“That’s going to put a real surge on our laboratory,” he said.

While GDPH hasn’t had to deal with that yet, he can’t count anything out. It’s why O’Neal said the funding thus far is a good beginning, but there needs to be more as information about Georgia’s risk becomes available.

Georgia currently has 43 Zika patients, representing only 3 percent of cases in the United States. However, Florida has 270 patients, 19 percent of the U.S. total, and is currently investigating two cases of infection through mosquitoes.

O’Neal said while the possible spread should alert people, it’s not surprising. Florida has a much higher population of the mosquitoes likely to carry the virus than Georgia so the best GDPH can do is continue to monitor those mosquito populations here.

Another concern comes with the start of the Olympics in Rio on August 5. Brazil is a hot bed of the Zika virus and that means athletes attending the international event could contrat Zika and pass it on.

However, many are still flocking to the games which presents the risk to bring back the virus.

“Is it at all realistic or possible to test every one of those people? No it’s not,” O’Neal said. “It’s too large.”

However, the silver lining is that the games will take place in Brazil’s winter, the lowest point for mosquito populations. O’Neal said he’s more focused on areas like Central or Latin America which are currently experiencing summer with mosquito season in full swing.

O’Neal said it’s concerning to think about how many people vacation there and put themselves at risk.

“It’s monumental,” he said.

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