Zika funding held back by politics

To date, nearly 2,000 Zika cases have been reported in the United States. In Miami alone, roughly 30 people have contracted Zika after being bitten by mosquitos, including a tourist who took the virus back with him to Texas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken the unprecedented action of issuing a travel warning for a community in the United States. Sadly, Congress has yet to act.

As physicians we are appalled that politics has prevented our government from funding a response to Zika that will protect women and their families. We are especially alarmed that elected officials — in Florida, and in Washington — continue to try to tie Zika funding to legislation that would limit women’s access to reproductive and preventive care.

{mosads}If we’re serious about addressing the Zika threat, we must fully fund comprehensive reproductive healthcare — so that all at-risk women who would like to avoid or delay their pregnancy may do so.

Florida is, in many ways, is a cautionary tale. While the state is ground-zero for the Zika crisis in the United States, some politicians in the state are putting their own ideology above women’s health by blocking access to preventive care. Just earlier this year Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law that would block access to birth control, health education, and other screenings — the same services that are critical to combat Zika.

More than 5,300 low-income patients in the state rely on Planned Parenthood for their health care. Florida politicians claimed that these patients could access reproductive and preventive care at dentist offices and elementary schools instead. But nearly 80 percent of Planned Parenthood health centers in Florida are in rural or medically underserved areas. More than a third of Florida counties don’t have an obstetrician-gynecologist provider, and more than a million women in the state lack access to affordable birth control.

All of these services are critical to addressing the Zika public health crisis. In fact, public health officials, including the CDC, recommend contraception as the primary strategy for reducing Zika-related pregnancy complications.

Unfortunately, Florida is not alone in its efforts to block medical professionals from providing proper care or restrict patients from accessing it during the midst of the Zika crisis. Politicians have tried to block care at Planned Parenthood facilities in 24 states and counting, including 11 of the 12 Southern states where the risk of Zika is highest. These political games hinder access to crucial preventive care that could help more people delay or avoid pregnancy, putting more and more women and their families at risk.

As ob-gyns and women’s health care providers, we have seen firsthand the real harm politically motivated restrictions on reproductive health care have on women’s health. With the threat of Zika looming over women across the country, such laws and regulations mean even bigger obstacles to protecting women’s wellbeing.

To be sure, there is still much that we do not yet know about Zika and its effects on developing pregnancies. But that makes it all the more important that people at risk of contracting Zika – or who are already affected by it — have access to timely, comprehensive reproductive healthcare. This includes access to contraception, to health care providers who understand Zika and study its impact on a developing embryo and fetus, and to testing for the virus.

We urge Congress to return to Washington to adequately fund a response to Zika. Without this crucial support for women’s health, attempts to combat Zika will simply fall short. Any attempt to restrict the ability of women to avoid or delay pregnancy will make stopping the spread of Zika that much harder.

It’s time for lawmakers to start acting in the best interest of public health. Our country depends on it.

Dr. Thomas Gellhaus, MD, is President of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dr. Didi Saint Louis, MD, MPH is an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Morehouse School of Medicine.


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