The importance of Planned Parenthood in the Zika epidemic

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While Congress hasn’t been able to pass funding for fighting Zika virus for over six months since President Obama’s request for emergency supplementation, the Planned Parenthood controversy isn’t a trivial one.

Specifically, Democrats have been holding out on passing the likely $1.1 billion (down from the $1.9 billion President Obama originally requested in February of this year) due to hidden provisions from Republicans to divert some of those funds from Planned Parenthood.

This is not just political theater, but a medical one, one that reinvigorates debate about women’s health. Zika virus is a mosquito-born disease that thus far has its primary effects on the unborn children of infected pregnant women. One in five Zika-infected patients are asymptomatic themselves, but the virus is also sexually transmitted. In a fairly grotesque mechanism, Zika virus causes microcephaly in unborn fetuses. The skull of a fetus develops prior to the brain, and as the brain grows, it “fills out” the skull and helps it hold its shape. In Zika, as the virus attacks the nervous system, the brain never grows to its appropriate capacity, and the skull collapses around it, forming the misshapen and small character of microcephaly that is sometimes not survivable after birth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health are fundamentally out of money, even after diverting funds from many other areas — HIV prevention, malaria, tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer — just to get initial action started while Congress took their seven-week recess. These efforts have focused on mosquito prevention and spraying, education, research, testing and vaccination. The importance of Planned Parenthood, however is fundamental as an immediate response to Zika-infections in pregnant women. It offers important roles on safe sex education, birth control, and yes, termination of pregnancies.

This is not a new thought, but a politically charged one so close to an election. Defunding Planned Parenthood in the face of Zika is like defunding firefighters in the face of a forest fire. All the other efforts of government agencies are focused on prevention. Planned Parenthood offers an essential right to choose for women. Admittedly this choice is an unpopular one that could be spun by pundits as eugenics, but it is a personal one that mothers should have as to the life they would like their unborn child to have. There are very real considerations as to the capabilities and resources mothers will be able to offer for caring for a special-needs child.

Abortion aside, Planned Parenthood offers a highly effective way of limiting spread of Zika without spraying chemicals into the air: condoms and birth control. While hundreds continue to protest as spraying of mosquitoes commences despite CDC assurance that it is safe for humans, even the Pope has already stated condoms are acceptable in the face of Zika virus.

Congress needs to put aside political theater and realize that while vaccines, testing and diagnostics will be limited by the natural speed and expense of scientific research, the magic bullet is already here: Planned Parenthood. Fight fire with firefighters, not Smokey the Bear. Fund Planned Parenthood.

Amy Faith Ho, MD is an emergency physician, published writer and national speaker on issues pertaining to healthcare, with work featured in Forbes, Chicago Tribune, NPR, KevinMD, and TEDx.

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


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