Hurd on the Hill: Zika Virus - What You Need to Know
People in Texas are understandably concerned about Zika and the fever that victims can contract when exposed to the virus. The impact it can have on unborn babies is especially distressing, as it can lead to birth defects that can be physically and cognitively debilitating.
When a potential health crisis like this is facing our nation, there is no time to play politics or point fingers. It is time to stay calm, get informed and make good decisions.
First, it is important to know what Zika is, how it is spread and how you can protect your family. A virus similar to dengue, Zika is primarily spread by the bites from infected mosquitos. While the type of mosquito that could carry the Zika virus is found in North America, no mosquito infected with Zika has been found in the United States to date. The type of mosquito that can carry Zika lives only a few weeks, and doesn’t stray more than 100 yards from where it hatches. All of the current Zika patients in the United States contracted the disease while traveling to an infected area or through sexual contact with someone who recently traveled. No patients contracted Zika by being bitten by a mosquito in the United States.
Zika fever is usually very mild and could include fever, a mild rash, sore eyes, a headache and joint pain. There is currently no treatment for Zika fever, but death is extremely rare.
However that doesn’t negate the danger to the unborn babies whose mother’s contract the virus, as it is thought to lead to microcephaly. An infant with microcephaly has a below-average size head, often caused by the failure of the brain to grow at a normal rate while in the womb. Some babies do not survive because the brain is too underdeveloped to regulate vital organs. The babies that do survive can face severe disabilities.
The best way for Americans to avoid contracting Zika is to limit travel to any countries that currently have infected mosquitoes and to avoid unsafe sexual contact with anyone who has recently returned from one of these countries. If you are required to travel, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that you use insect repellent, cover as much exposed skin as possible and avoid exposure by staying in places that have good windows and screens to keep insects out. You can learn more at https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/zika-travel-information. You can also reach the CDC at 1-800-232-4737 or the Texas Department of Health at www.TexasZika.org or 1-888-963-7111.
Because of the dangers posed to unborn babies who might be exposed, it is important to find a cure for Zika. Congress has been working toward that end in several ways. In February, House Members encouraged the Obama Administration to respond as rapidly as possible by using unobligated funds that had previously been provided for Ebola research. In April, the administration heeded that advice, reprogrammed $589 million for Zika and began spending it. How much has been spent so far is not clear, as the Administration has not released those numbers.
Also in April, the House passed and the President signed into law S. 2512, a bipartisan bill that will make it easier to conduct the research necessary to develop treatments for Zika, and ultimately a vaccine. The House acted again when it passed H.R. 5342, the Zika Response Appropriations Act, which allocates an additional $622 million, bringing the total amount appropriated by Congress to be used this fiscal year to combat Zika to $1.2 billion. The Zika Vector Control Act, H.R. 897, was also passed by the House and removes regulatory burdens on mosquito control. Both pieces of legislation are currently being worked out with their Senate companion bills and the final versions are expected to be sent to the President for his signature very soon.
Experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have indicated that trials of a Zika vaccine may start as early as September and that it is possible a vaccine might be ready by the beginning of 2018.
Recently I arranged a phone call with local elected and health officials, so that they could hear directly from the CDC and learn more about resources available to local entities to prevent and treat Zika, as well as look for ways to cure it. The state of Texas is eligible for over $1.5 million in local funding and is actively coordinating with the CDC and local health departments.
Congress has been acting in a bipartisan manner to combat Zika and we will continue to work to ensure that the resources necessary are available. The lives and health of unborn children are too important to put at risk.