Blog: Zika Fears

Pam Linn

So why am I writing about the Zika virus when I live in Montana, one might ask. Living in one of the states least likely to be affected and being way past the age when pregnancy might be a factor, I’m unlikely to contract the virus.

However, I have a daughter and a pregnant granddaughter who live in Texas and they are a bit on edge. If you draw a line on the map from the current Zika hotspot — just north of Miami — due west, it will intersect the southernmost point of Texas: Brownsville. In the middle of summer when the weather is hot and humid in Texas, the Aedes aegypti mosquito — that transmits Zika as well as dengue fever, yellow fever and chikungunya — could migrate west and set up colonies there. 

Currently, there is no treatment available to combat the virus and a vaccine is just beginning trials for safety and effectiveness. Three vaccines have been tested on nonhuman primates and have been proven to be both safe and effective, but human trials involving 80 participants only began this month and a phase two trial of 2,400 people is slated to begin next year.

Congress went on holiday for seven weeks without approving any of the $1.9 billion that President Obama requested way back in February to combat Zika. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell has said the Centers for Disease Control received money originally targeted for the Ebola virus that was “repurposed” to respond to domestic Zika efforts. That money, $374 million, will be exhausted by the end of September and money for vaccine development will run out even sooner. So additional resources are critically needed, Burwell said.

In the Miami area, spraying for mosquitoes is proving to be inadequate. Aedes mosquitoes can successfully lay their eggs in just a bottle cap of water. We think of standing water as the amount found in a used tire or large saucers beneath potted plants. But a one-inch square is a hard target to spot. Also, very few dead mosquitoes have been found in areas that have been sprayed.

Pregnant women, hoping to avoid the risk of serious birth defects, have been given misleading instructions on how to protect themselves. One woman living in the one square mile hot zone known as Wynwood, a gentrified area of high-end shops and art galleries where 16 cases have been confirmed, said her doctor told her to hire someone to walk her dog and to stay inside. But Aedes mosquitoes, unlike those that come out to feed at night and in the early morning hours, tend to feed midday and to live indoors. So that leaves long-sleeved shirts and pants and insecticides containing DEET for protection.

Aedes-type mosquitoes have been located in every country in North, Central and South America except Canada and Chile, according to the World Health Organization’s regional office for the Americas.

The California Department of Health received a federal grant last week from the CDC to fight the Zika virus. Two babies have been born in California with Zika-related microcephaly from mothers infected outside the country.

The current vaccine being tested is a DNA-based vaccine that contains pieces of Zika virus designed to trigger immune responses. Phase one trials that test for safety last 44 weeks, which would take us into our winter months when the density of cases is low. With all the political wrangling, that ship may have sailed, meaning the earliest a vaccine might be available stretches close to two years; that is, if the money is approved by Congress.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said Democrats will get another chance to pass a bill when Congress reconvenes in September. However, Republicans added a provision to block Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving any of that money. Without mentioning that rider, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) blamed Democrats for “a blatant ploy in an election year.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) suggested in a letter to McConnell that the Senate could pass a bill through a procedure known as a pro forma session that requires only a few senators to be present. There isn’t much hope among politicians for this to occur. In a snide aside, Nelson predicted that the Senate would move quickly if a transmitted case of Zika were found in Kentucky. 

Partisan wrangling aside, there seems to be little excuse for a country as wealthy as ours to fail in stopping this virus, or to drag its collective feet in funding such efforts. It’s no wonder that Congress has such a low approval rating with voters. As a prospective great-grandmother, I can only hope they do whatever it takes to solve this impasse quickly.