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Clock is ticking on Zika funding

The number one rule of crisis management is to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place. Washington isn’t heeding that advice when it comes to the Zika virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 150 people in the U.S. have been infected with the mosquito-borne virus this year after traveling to Central and South America, regions where the virus has exploded.  In Brazil alone, there are 4,000 cases of microcephaly, or severe birth defects, in infants, most likely caused by Zika. The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency.

{mosads}So far, the at-risk population is pregnant women. That’s why the CDC has urged pregnant women, in any trimester, to postpone travel to Zika-affected regions in Latin America.  And it’s why we, one of the nation’s largest federally qualified health centers, have issued similar travel advisories to our pregnant patients, going a step further by screening them for travel history and symptoms. As a leading health care provider in Southeast Texas, we see about 300 pregnant women each day, many of whom travel to Latin America and back.  

While public health officials and providers have a sense of urgency, the federal government is dragging its feet. The head of the House Appropriations Committee recently rejected the Obama administration’s $1.8 billion emergency funding request to help find a vaccine and care for low-income pregnant women, pointing to existing funds for Ebola that could be used. (Health officials have questioned those funds being used.) 

And last week the Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a hearing on Zika with top health authorities where some lawmakers came across as skeptical or dismissive of the funding need. Needless to say, action on Zika has stalled.

As we wrote in a letter to members of Congress and the Obama administration, “Partisan wrangling over public health should not slow the all-hands-on-deck response we need to find a vaccine, increase mosquito controls, and help patients with care.” The livelihoods of babies are literally at risk the longer the debate over funding drags out. At least two American women infected with the virus have had abortions.

Congressional and administration leaders need to lock themselves in a room and not come out until a deal is reached. According to a February poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, the American people are watching. 

Texas is geographically positioned to feel the brunt of the Zika storm. “Mosquito season is approaching, and the number of travel-related cases continues to inch up for Texas,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, the head of Texas Department of State Health Services. “It’s only a matter of time before Zika virus is locally transmitted here by mosquitoes.”

Our state is implementing more aggressive mosquito controls and just opened a Zika testing lab in Austin. But Texas and other southern states need all the help we can get limiting or preventing damage to moms and their babies.

Like any health care provider, our number one priority is the health and wellbeing of the people we serve.  We hope this is the priority of lawmakers, too, even in an election year.

Caldwell is CEO of Legacy Community Health in Houston.


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