Local health departments are depending on additional Zika funding

Introduction

Zika is a public health emergency.  When Congress failed to approve emergency funding to battle the disease before leaving for their summer break, in effect they placed the public health at risk.  It falls to the local health departments around the country to work to keep our communities safe.  They depend on federal funding to manage unexpected health emergencies like Zika.  Congress must pass a bill immediately.

{mosads}What’s at Stake?

The CDC reports as of Sept. 1, there are 671 pregnant women in the U.S. with possible Zika virus infection and another 1,080 in U.S territories.

The effect of Zika on pregnant women and their babies can be catastrophic.  In addition to possible microcephaly, there are other severe Zika-related fetal brain defects linked to problems in infants, including eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth. Scientists are studying the full range of other potential health problems that Zika virus infection during pregnancy may cause.  It is too soon to know what symptoms may develop in these children in the years to come.  Having the funds to better protect our communities and prevent infection is an urgent matter. 

Impact of the Funding Shortfall on Local Health Departments

In February President Obama asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding.  Seven months later, Congress has yet to provide new funding.  In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a shift of $44.2 million from state and local Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) grants to pay for the Zika response.  It should be noted that PHEP grants have also been cut by over 30% over the last decade. How has the funding shortfall affected local health departments’ effects to protect their communities from the virus?

In response, NACCHO conducted a Zika preparedness study among local health departments and we found half of local health departments that responded expected PHEP funding cuts to have some or significant impact on their Zika preparedness and response, as well as other emergency efforts.  Many respondents expressed concern that the redistribution of funds threatens the sustainability of preparedness programs and sets a dangerous precedent.

Without adequate funding, preparedness and response for Zika will be compromised in the following ways:

a.      Severely limited capacity to support mosquito control and surveillance;

b.     Inability to send emergency teams to be on-site and support testing specimens to determine the presence of Zika virus in communities;

c.      Overwhelmed labs as increased numbers of pregnant women and their partners require testing;

d.     Inability to offer free Zika test kits to pregnant women and partners who request it.

e.      Inability to sustain the long-term need to track and ensure health services that support families of children with negative birth outcomes and developmental delays as a result of Zika;

f.       Inability to help manage additional Zika outbreaks;

Although health departments can shift funds from one department from another to pay for Zika activities, this amounts to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”  What if there is another infectious disease outbreak, another natural disaster, or what if Zika infections become more and more common in the United States?

Conclusion

It is challenging to address local health departments’ Zika preparedness in the context of other ongoing activities and competing priorities.  However, with emergency Zika funding, local health departments will be able to take steps to prevent devastating impacts on families and will have increased capacity to respond and support families facing this devastating disease.  If Congress restores emergency preparedness funding and provides dedicated local and state health department funding for Zika, this is possible. This is not the time for political rhetoric.  We must roll up our sleeves and do what is best for the nation, especially pregnant women and their families.

LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH is executive Director, The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) is the national nonprofit association representing the approximately 2,800 local health departments (LHDs) in the United States, including city, county, metro, district, and tribal agencies.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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