September 1, 2016
By James McCarville
Zika is the latest of a string of strange new diseases to fill our headlines and feed our fears. The problem, of course, is what to do about it. The answer from Congress, so far, is to protect it.
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus which can also be sexually transmitted. It is usually the case that no symptoms are noticed or may result in only a fever or rash. However, it can cause microcephaly in infants born to mothers infected with it. The fact that it is frequently unnoticed makes it particularly insidious for a carrier who may unknowingly transmit it to an unsuspecting partner. These babies may have small heads and severe brain damage. It may also cause Gullain-Barre neurological disorders in adults. The virus is widespread in South and Central America and just beginning to arrive in the south of the US. As of this writing over 380 cases have been reported in Florida and over 10,000 in Puerto Rico.
While the Aedis aegypti mosquito is not native to Pennsylvania, this region is not immune from person to person transmission. Male sperm has remained contaminated for as much as six months after infection. There has been one case of female to male sexual transmission and one documented case of nonsexual transmission from patient to caregiver.
Southern cities and states have begun campaigns to spray targeted neighborhoods and to educate people to remove standing water from old tires or other water traps. Pregnant women and men and women risking pregnancy have been advised to avoid areas or, if not possible, to take precautions with bug spray, contraceptives or absence from sex. Even blood banks are taking precautions as this virus mutates.
Scientists, including those at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, are working on a cure. They have seeded their own research with $200,000 and created a website for researchers, Curazika. But federal funding, the real money, has been slow in coming.
Last Spring President Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion to fight Zika. Congressional Republicans turned this down. Later Congressional Democrats voted down a $1.1 billion plan because it would have prevented Planned Parenthood from distributing contraceptives to prevent the disease. Then Congress left town.
Obama recently diverted $81 million from biomedical research and antipoverty programs. His Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell is pleading for $380 million more.
Congress may take it up again when they return, but the national cynicism cited in a Tweet (quoted in a Forbes.com article on winners and losers on this issue) was summed up like this: “If you are a mosquito or a virus, congratulations.”
James McCarville is a member of the Thomas Merton Center Board and Editorial Collective.