Science Policy For All

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The Campaign to Battle Zika

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By: Melissa Pegues, Ph.D.

On February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika outbreak a public health emergency, meaning that the response requires the coordination of global partners to detect infections, control mosquito populations, and develop vaccines and diagnostic tests to prevent the spread of the disease. With concerns that Zika will move into the US as summer begins, there is an urgent need to contain the epidemic. Congress, however, has been slow to respond and continues to debate how exactly to fund the fight.

Zika infection is rarely fatal and is commonly accompanied by symptoms such as rash, fever, and joint pain, but some do experience more serious symptoms including Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare form of paralysis. However, Zika gained significant publicity when medical professionals in Brazil and other Latin American countries noticed a frightening association between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and babies born with microcephaly. Microcephaly is a rare birth defect where infants are born with underdeveloped brains and smaller than average head size. Although only considered an association for many months, studies of Zika infection in pregnant mice and monkeys have found evidence supporting the link between Zika infection and microcephaly. In support of the mounting evidence, Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recently stated that “It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly.

While research moves quickly to demystify the Zika virus, the political system has failed to gain a foothold amongst the confusion. The White House had requested $1.885 billion towards the Zika fight in February, and in a rare bi-partisan effort, Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) topped Obama’s request with a $1.94 billion proposal that included $144 million for vaccine research that would also include funding for research into dengue fever and chikungunya. That proposal ultimately never came to a vote. The Senate has approved $1.1 Billion in emergency funds and the House of Representatives has offered a bill that would reallocate just $622 million from existing programs for the Zika response, but neither measure has been passed by both chambers.

The Capital Hill battle over Zika has revealed a number of underlying political viewpoints that each affect how politicians respond to this crisis. Republicans worry that abortions may increase due to the severe birth defects associated with Zika infections in pregnant women, and with evidence mounting that Zika can be sexually transmitted, Republicans are debating whether the better message is use of contraception or abstinence. Federal public health officials have countered that they do not believe their role is not to tell women if they should become pregnant, but rather focus on preventing spread of the disease. Pope Francis has weighed in and suggested that the use of contraception is acceptable to help prevent the spread of Zika.

On the other hand, Democrats have expressed concern over use of pesticides. In a proposal meant to help control mosquito vector populations, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) suggested easing regulatory restrictions on pesticides. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to exploit fears and countered that exceptions for use of pesticides already exist. The White House also commented that the Republican-led House’s proposal removes Clean Water Act protections that are not acceptable during this emergency. Democratic representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Grace Napolitano (D-CA) stated “Over the years, proponents of exempting pesticide spraying from the Clean Water Act have used the crisis of the day as the reason to support their legislation.”

While Congress debates how to best combat Zika, the CDC reports that the number of cases of pregnant women in the US with the virus has climbed to 279 as of late May, and multiple models are predicting the spread across the US. Furthermore, WHO chief, Margaret Chan, has cited a number of policy failures that allowed for lapses in mosquito control and the spread of Zika. At a recent World Health Assembly meeting, Chan said Zika took the world by surprise and revealed fault lines in the world’s collective preparedness. In addition, the spread of Zika, resurgence of dengue, and the emerging chikungunya threat are prices paid for “a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s.”

With the outbreak of Zika spreading, many concerns have arisen over how to respond to Zika and prepare for other emerging threats. In a recent essay, Ronald A. Klain, the White House Ebola response coordinator from 2014 to 2015, urged Congress to put aside their differences and fund preventive measures for new epidemics. He stated that the threat of emerging disease is “not coming to the United States: It is already here.” In support of this, the Senate recently voted 93-2 to move forward with negotiations with the House of Representatives. Public officials have continued to urge politicians to focus on controlling the disease, but Chan stated that for now “all we can offer is advice. Avoid mosquito bites. Avoid pregnancy. Do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission.”

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , ,

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