Stop Zika before it gains foothold in U.S., say health officials

Realizing the fight against the devastating Zika virus will hinge on effective mosquito control, federal, state and municipal health officials met at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday to share strategies and plead for federal dollars to stop the spread of the disease.

About 180 health department commissioners, doctors, environmental protection officers and other health care workers met to get ahead of a virus that threatens to hit the continental United States as mosquito season starts. While there was unanimity among conferees that stopping the virus hinges on mosquito control, there is no uniform national plan to contain the virus if and when it arrives on the mainland. For that to happen, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden urged Congress to approve a $1.9 billion request from the White House, $828 million of which would go to the CDC’s Zika effort. The federal dollars would fund things like the development of vaccines, research, and awareness campaigns.

“Without additional resources we won’t be able to get the resources we need to get to the state and local levels to provide Americans with the protection they deserve,” Frieden said.

Congress has said the CDC should use any remaining Ebola funds to fight Zika, but Frieden and others said that would not be sufficient.

“Shifting money from crisis to crisis will have us chasing our tails,” said Dr. Ed McCabe, medical director of the March of Dimes. “We have a few short months to stop Zika from gaining a foot hold in the U.S. If we don’t the consequences will be dire.”

The virus is already spreading across the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico with 325 cases of the virus recorded so far, including 40 pregnant women, according to the CDC. So far there have been 312-travel related cases of Zika in the U.S. including at least 21 pregnant women.

Pregnant women are the target of the CDC’s response to the virus because of Zika’s links to a range of debilitating birth defects, including microcephaly. Microcephaly causes babies to be born with undersized heads, underdeveloped brains and a host of physical and cognitive problems. Zika has also been linked to miscarriages and other dire health problems in babies. The virus is spread through two types of mosquitoes found in Georgia, the aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus. It is also sexually transmitted.

Georgia has had 11 travel-related cases of Zika so far. None have involved pregnant women. But State Public Health Commissioner Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald said Friday she is worried that a travel-related case would lead to eventual cases of mosquito-borne transmission in the state. While the state does not have a consistent mosquito control program, Fitzgerald, who is coordinating the state’s Zika response, said her department is filling nine new positions specifically for state-wide mosquito surveillance to help identify and clean up potential mosquito breeding grounds.

“This response is going to require overlapping efforts,” Fitzgerald said.

But those measures must begin immediately and they must be nationwide, experts said.

“If we wait until the public is panicking, until we see babies being born with birth defects, we have waited too long,” said Amy Pope, White House Deputy Homeland Security Advisor said.

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