Zika update: Local anti-mosquito action needed; McConnell, Rogers at center of debate over Obama's request for more funds

Mosquitoes can carry Zika. (NPR photo)

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

While all 388 Zika virus cases confirmed in the continental U.S., including six in Kentucky, have been in people who were infected abroad and then returned to the states, a health official said on “Fox News Sunday” that it is likely the U.S. will have its own outbreak.

“It is likely we will have what is called a local outbreak,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Diane Bartz reports for Reuters.

Fauci said he did not expect a large number of people to become ill: “We’re talking about scores of cases, dozens of cases, at most.”

Dr. Ardis Hoven, infectious disease specialist for the Kentucky Department for Public Health, agreed and said the potential exists for Kentucky to have a local outbreak.

“I think it would be unreasonable for us to assume that we would not be at risk,” she said in a telephone interview. “So therefore, we have to plan accordingly.”

Hoven said mosquito control in the state is a “top priority,” but said the bulk of this will have to happen at a local level.

She encouraged Kentuckians to talk about mosquito prevention with their friends and family and ask themselves, “What can I do in my community, in my yard, on my street to prevent mosquitoes from hatching and infecting those around me?”

Zika virus prevention strategy: Dress, Defend and Drain

The state has adopted a “3 D” approach to decrease the risk of infection by mosquitoes: Dress in light-colored long sleeved shirts and pants; Defend against mosquitoes with approved insect repellents; and Drain all standing water.

“If we can control mosquitoes in our region, we will go a long way to minimize the potential risk from infected mosquitoes,” Hoven said.

The World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency in February. Those who have traveled to affected areas, such as Central and South America, are at the highest risk of contracting the virus, which is spread primarily by infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. It can also be spread through sexual intercourse. Aedes aegypti can be found in about 30 U.S. states, including Kentucky.

Zika virus is especially dangerous to pregnant women because it has been linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly, a condition where the infants head is smaller than normal, as well as other severe fetal brain defects, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state health department has reported that one of the confirmed Zika cases in the state is a pregnant woman.

The CDC is investigating the link between Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its nerves. And Fauci said there could be other neurological conditions caused by Zika that affect adults, Bartz reports.

“There are only individual case reports of significant neurological damage to people, not just the fetuses, but an adult that would get infected. Things that they call meningoencephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain and the covering around the brain, spinal cord damage due to what we call myelitis,” Fauci said. “So far they look unusual, but at least we’ve seen them and that’s concerning.”

Common symptoms of the virus are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, with symptoms lasting for about a week, though many with the virus have no symptoms. Currently there is no vaccine for Zika.

Funding to fight Zika held up in Congress

In February, President Obama asked Congress for an additional $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight the Zika virus, including funds to develop a vaccine. This is in addition to $589 million in previously appropriated funds that have already been transferred to the effort.

That money should last through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year, but “There’s going to need to be additional money, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the House health appropriations subcommittee, told Susan Cornwell of Reuters April 13.

Top senators from both parties said “they are getting close to a deal to provide at least some emergency funding to fight the Zika virus, making it likely that the Senate will move ahead on the issue without waiting for the House,” David Nather writes for STAT, an online health journal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at a news conference April 19 that congressional Republicans were working with the administration on the funding details, Peter Sullivan reports for The Hill.

“We’re working with them on it to figure out exactly the right amount of money,” McConnell said at a press conference. “You know, how is it going to be spent? And I don’t think, in the end, there will be any opposition to addressing what we think is going to be a fairly significant public health crisis.”

Nevertheless, House Republicans kept saying they don’t have enough information to approve the request.

On April 20, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said the Obama administration “continues to delay response efforts by refusing to provide basic budgetary information to Congress on their Zika funding request. This includes not answering our most basic question: ‘What is needed, right now, over the next 5 months in fiscal year 2016, to fight this disease?’ In the absence of this information, the House Appropriations Committee will work with our colleagues in the House and the Senate to make our own determinations on what is needed and when, and to provide the funding that we believe is necessary and responsible.”

Five days earlier, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans have all the information they need to move forward, ABC reports. He said, “They’ve had ample opportunity to collect information, to ask questions of senior administration officials, to read letters, to read the legislative proposal that was put forward by the administration.” 

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