Recent reports of Zika cases in Florida has prompted the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) —high-risk pregnancy physician specialists— to reissue a plea to Congress to act swiftly in funding vaccine research as well as research on the current and ongoing impact of Zika on infected mothers and babies.

The organization has many physician members who are Zika experts and they have worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop protocol and discuss potential repercussions of Zika virus infection in pregnancy.  

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SMFM acted quickly with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) to issue a practice advisory on the care of women of reproductive age during a Zika outbreak.

They issued a statement on ultrasound screening for fetal microcephaly following Zika exposure and led the initial effort with 18 other public health groups, medical professional societies, patient advocacy organizations, and other interested stakeholders.

In their effort to ensure that President Obama’s request to fund key programs that would address the Zika virus through the CDC, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, National Institutes of Health, and Health Resources and Services Administration.

SMFM urged leaders of Congress to act quickly in funding the President’s requested $1.8 billion, $1.48 billion of which is to be provided to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The funding request includes $828 million for CDC surveillance activities and $200 million for vaccine research and diagnostic development and procurement.  

Subsequently, SMFM has joined numerous efforts with March of Dimes and others to continue to pressure Congress to move swiftly to fund Zika-related activities. The large coalition has engaged in almost 200 meetings, Hill briefings and close to a dozen letters.

Unfortunately, this critical funding has yet to come to fruition— Congress is leaving town for its August recess without coming together on an agreement to fight Zika.

With the 14 confirmed cases now reported in Florida, the time for Congress to act is now. No more playing politics and not taking money from other emergent threats to backfill this need.

As obstetricians specializing in high risk pregnancy care, SMFM members are in daily contact with women, children, and families who may be threatened by the Zika virus. We worry about the potential for the number of those infected to grow and spread into the U.S. population.

We believe the response by the government at home and abroad is essential to ensure that Americans are protected and that this devastating disease is eradicated before more babies are impacted.

As the epidemic spreads, we are increasingly concerned about maternal-fetal transmission, the immune response, and the potential causal relationship with fetal microcephaly and abnormal brain development.  

What we have determined so far may be the tip of the iceberg, and we fear that other, more subtle effects may not be discovered until the children are older.  As we all work together to answer these, and other, pressing questions, it is imperative that the scope of the response be broader than emergency funding.

Beyond short-term needs to shore up the emergency response, we are calling on Congress to provide funding to address long-term effects of the Zika virus on the pregnant population, including the need for coverage of services associated with the care of women at risk for Zika virus infection as new guidelines and protocols are implemented.  

There is, and will continue to be, a need for additional testing, counseling, and evaluation of those pregnant women who have been exposed, as well as of their children. Going forward, any emergency response must include special consideration of impact on the pregnant population, which may have unique risks and vulnerabilities.

It is critical that the U.S. fund efforts to eradicate this virus. The longer it takes to develop a vaccine, the greater the number of infected individuals and affected infants.

The longer it takes to get much needed funding to the NIH to investigate the range of impacts on women in childbearing age and their babies, the more people this virus will infect. Without additional resources, the health care system will not be able to keep pace with the increase in demand for services related to testing and follow up of pregnant women and their children.

Given limited investments in the public health infrastructure and the continued threats to health funding witnessed in the wake of the Budget Control Act, surge funding for emergent threats such as the Zika virus will continue to be necessary.

It is far more effective for Congress to support infectious disease surveillance and research broadly through consistent annual appropriations, and to avert these urgent and unpredictable situations in the future.  

Given the potential for rapid global transmission of the Zika virus, it is imperative that the U.S. act quickly and that leaders on each side of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol come together immediately when they return in September to hash out a deal for funding to combat Zika.  Funding research and public health surveillance now will help to save dollars as well as lives.

Mary E. Norton, M.D. is the President of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine


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