Are Americans Fully Protected Against the Zika Virus?

July 1, 2016

“We really won’t be able to protect the American people to the extent that we can, from the technology standpoint, without that funding.” states Stephen Redd, MD, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although still in the midst of debate over funding to combat the Zika virus, Congress is scheduled to be off for the 4th of July holiday weekend; however, some members are calling for a shorter recess, citing an urgent need to come to a decision on funding now—at the height of mosquito season in the United States.

In a press conference today, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Planned Parenthood Executive Vice President, Dawn Laguens, called for the break to be cut short in order to come to bipartisan agreement on a bill to fund efforts against the Zika virus. Many are concerned that a funding deal will not be reached before the seven-week summer recess scheduled for Congress just three days after the 4th of July break.

On Tuesday this week, Senate Democrats blocked a bill for $1.1 billion in Zika funding that had been approved by House Republicans last week. Although the bill would grant approximately $400 million in new funds, Democrats were concerned about the lack of funding granted to family-planning organizations, such as Planned Parenthood. Particularly, given that the population at greatest risk for the virus is pregnant women or those who are planning to become pregnant, since an infection in the first trimester of pregnancy can have significant effects on the developing fetus.

Although the United States has not seen any active transmission of the virus thus far, there have been more than 900 cases of imported Zika infections—this is considering that only 20% of those infected with the virus are symptomatic. Not only this, but several US territories are already experiencing outbreaks, with numbers in the thousands. The coming summer months will lend to a higher prevalence of the Zika-spreading vector, as well as heightened travel to infected areas.

ABC News and The Washington Post recently polled Americans for their thoughts on the threat of the Zika virus and their faith in the government’s ability to act if an outbreak occurred. Seventy-three percent of Americans who participated in the poll were in support of the $1.9 billion in funds that President Obama requested from Congress to battle the spread of the Zika virus; however, they do not share the same sense of urgency that US health organizations state is needed to properly take action to protect Americans from becoming infected. Indeed, according to the poll results, the level of concern about becoming infected with Zika (33%) lags behind that of Ebola (43%), even though the vector that transfers Zika, Aedes egypti, is present in the United States and an Ebola outbreak is less likely. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that only 25% of respondents reported taking steps to limit their exposure to the virus, and less than 25% report draining standing water, a breeding ground for mosquitoes that transmit not only Zika, but also West Nile, which is prevalent in the country. Although most poll respondents (66%) indicated a positive level of confidence in the government’s ability to be able to respond to an outbreak, without the necessary funding in place that response may not be adequate.

To learn about the effect that a lack of funding may have on the federal response to a Zika outbreak in the continental United States, Contagion spoke with Stephen Redd, MD, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to Dr. Redd, “the US government response to Zika right now is really operating on a shoestring. The administration has taken funds from other places so that we have some funding available to respond right now, but the $1.9 billion that the president requested is really critical to be able to respond effectively.”

The proactive interventions that need to be in place, from vector-control activities, to diagnostic testing, to communication with the public, require funding. “Some of the interventions are really quite expensive, the vector-control activities in particular.” stated Dr. Redd.

He continued, “There are scientific questions that really won’t get answered unless we have the funding. We really won’t be able to protect the American people to the extent that we can, from the technology standpoint, without that funding.”

Since research and prevention activities cannot be stalled, Dr. Redd indicated that substantial cuts have been made within the CDC in order to fund these efforts. One area that was particularly impacted was the preparedness work that states do for other outbreaks of infectious diseases. According to Dr. Redd, “[This area] has been cut 8% as part of the effort to respond to Zika. [As a result] there are things that states need to do to stay prepared for other threats that they won’t be able to do unless there is funding for Zika.”

View Dr. Redd’s response in its entirety here:

The CDC is not the only national organization making cuts to fund efforts to combat Zika. According to a recent report, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is also borrowing funding from other programs to continue their efforts against the virus. Despite a lack of funding, the institute has started enrolling men who are infected with the virus in Brazil and Colombia in a study to learn more about the virus’ virility in semen. This is of particular importance since it was confirmed that the virus can be transmitted from an infected male to a partner through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Although the study could take years to complete, results that come to bear during the course of the research “could help public health officials fine-tune their recommendations on sex.”

Commenting on the continuation of their efforts despite the lack of funding, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of NIAID was quoted as saying, “We are going out on a limb, but we have to. We can’t say we are going to wait until we get all the money.”

Congress is set to be back in session next week, and so we will have to wait and see whether or not Republicans and Democrats can come to a decision. National health organizations will continue to research the Zika virus’s effects; however, only time will tell if there will be repercussions from diverting and borrowing funds from other health efforts.