Disease Target No 1: Stop Zika Before It Spreads Beyond Florida
Policy + Politics

Disease Target No 1: Stop Zika Before It Spreads Beyond Florida

© Daniel Becerril / Reuters

The mounting Zika virus crisis that Congress tabled before departing for a summer recess just got a lot worse. Four new cases of Zika infection have been reported that were likely caused in the Miami area by infected mosquitoes.

While some people have contracted the dreaded disease while outside the U.S. and only showed symptoms upon returning to the U.S., the new report on Friday from the Florida Department of Health may be the first documented cases of individuals contracting the disease from mosquitoes within the continental United States.

Related: The Senate Dithers Again as Zika Virus Continues to Spread

If that is true, then the prospects are good that the virus may spread more widely throughout Florida and other southern states as the summer continues to heat up. For now, at least, state officials believe the area of “active transmission” is restricted to a one-square-mile area north of downtown Miami, according to The New York Times.

State health officials have yet to identify mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, but they have begun collecting urine samples of residents living in the area to determine whether there are any other similar cases of infection. The four cases that first alarmed officials involve three men and a woman, although it wasn’t clear whether the woman was pregnant.

“We learned today that four people in our state likely have the Zika virus as a result of a mosquito bite,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said during a news conference today. “All four of these people live in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, and the Florida Department of Health believes that active transmissions of this virus could be occurring in one small area in Miami.”

Related: U.S. lawmakers deadlock on Zika virus funds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- which sent a medical epidemiologist to Florida at the state’s request -- announced the same finding, according to a statement. “The cases are likely the first known occurrence of local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission in the continental United States,” according to the CDC.

The Zika virus is spread throughout the world by mosquitos, sexual contact, and blood transfusions, and is especially dangerous for pregnant women, who face the possibility of giving birth to babies with a bizarre  head-deforming disease known as microcephaly. The disease can also produce Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults – a sickness of the nervous system that can often lead to temporary paralysis.

Brazil, which is hosting the summer Olympics next month, and parts of Latin America are considered to be at the epicenter of the global threat. The World Health Organization on Feb. 1 declared an international public health emergency because of the virus. More than 1,000 people in the U.S. have been infected by the disease during travels outside of this country, including several hundred pregnant women. A dozen babies have been born with defects because of the disease.

In Florida alone, there have been several hundred cases of people being infected by the Zika virus since January, including 43 pregnant women. There has been at least one reported death in Puerto Rico related to the virus and one confirmed death in the continental United States.

Related: Congress Does It Again – Plays the Blame Game Over Funding to Prevent Zika

Experts say Zika is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is the same kind that causes dengue and chikungunya viruses. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters today, “I’m concerned we’re going to see more” cases, but that “very aggressive mosquito abatement will prevent this, we hope.” 

In Florida, state health officials are recommending a number of steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including draining standing water, cleaning garbage cans and pool covers, as well as spraying to kill insects. Pregnant women in particular are cautioned to avoid any contact with mosquitoes. 

About $1.1 billion in funding for mosquito abatement and other measures to combat the spread of the virus was contained in a major spending bill that became bogged down in the Senate shortly before Congress adjourned earlier this month for the Republican and Democratic national conventions and a long August recess. President Obama first requested $1.9 billion to combat the Zika virus six months ago, but – amazingly – the critically needed legislation has been turned into another political football. 

Republicans and Democrats have taken turn blaming one another for the reckless political gamesmanship. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats say they were outraged that GOP leaders inserted an amendment that would block funds for Planned Parenthood and weaken Clean Water Act regulations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP allies say the Democrats must bear sole responsibility for the impasse because of their filibuster.

Five Republican and Democratic lawmakers have proposed the creation of a permanent fund to deal with future public health care crises when there isn’t adequate time for Congress to act, according to Modern Healthcare. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), one of the proponents, said in a statement that the legislation would provide immediate resources to respond to public health emergencies like Zika or the previous Ebola outbreak.

“The pattern is well known, an outbreak of disease occurs, public panic grows, Congress scrambles and appropriates money,” he said. “This is an inefficient and dangerous way to deal with public health emergencies. As a doctor, with a background in public health, I know there is a better way.”