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Congressional partisanship creates noise, but no funding for Zika virus research.
The buzzing of mosquitos, a hallmark sound of summer, is now for some an ominous alarm. While a warning call that the Zika virus was coming to the United States was issued in the dead of winter, inaction by elected officials to reduce the impact of the virus has made the threatening buzz even louder.
As the thermometer rose, public health officials--particularly in the South--nervously monitored anticipated outbreaks of the virus. In mid-July, the Florida Department of Health announced an investigation into the first possible non-travel related case of the Zika virus in Miami-Dade County. Prior to this suspected case, more than 1300 cases of Zika were reported in the continental United States; however, all were related to travel to affected areas outside the US.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Zika is transmitted to people through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which can also spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. The virus can also be spread through sexual contact, blood transfusions, and laboratory exposure.
The CDC reports that the Aedes mosquito is present in 40 states and the District of Columbia. The method of transmission is simple: a mosquito bites an infected person, then carries the virus to the next person it bites. For most infected people, the symptoms of fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, headache, and conjunctivitis are usually mild.
For pregnant women and their unborn children, the threat is greater. Zika is known to cause microcephaly and other fetal brain defects; an infected pregnant woman can pass the virus on to her fetus during pregnancy. As of mid-July, more than 1600 serious birth defects were reported, mostly in Brazil.
The Zika virus is not new; it was first identified in 1947 in Uganda and spread around the world over the next six decades. In March 2015, Brazil reported its first outbreak and in October of that year reported an increase in the number of microcephaly cases among newborns. The number of cases grew, and on Feb. 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency because of clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders in some areas affected by Zika (1).
On Feb. 22, 2016, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding for vaccine and diagnostic research, mosquito surveillance and control, public education programs, and improved health services for low-income pregnant women.
The response from Congress was unfortunately typical. Republicans argued that they did not want to provide a “blank check” for the administration to use for other purposes. The funding could be provided in next year’s budget, they said, and argued for cuts in other areas to offset any emergency appropriations. Legislation offered by the Republicans, which would have provided less funding, contained provisions that were not acceptable to the Democrats. In the end, Congress went on summer break without providing any funding.
The Obama Administration reallocated nearly $600 million in funds from other projects to pay for Zika-related projects; state and local public health departments are also juggling budgets to increase mosquito control, education programs, and other prevention efforts.
New funding for vaccine research will have to wait. In the meantime, Congress will have to sleep tight, and hope the mosquitos don’t bite.
1. M.K. Kindhauser, “Zika: The Origin and Spread of a Mosquito-Borne Virus,” World Health Organization (Feb. 9, 2016), www.who.int/bulletin/online_first/16-171082/en/ accessed July 20, 2016.
Vol. 29, No. 8
When referring to this article, please cite it as R. Peters, "All Buzz, No Bite," BioPharm International 29 (8) 2016.