You may have noticed there are a lot of articles about Zika Virus flying around the internet. Half cite Zika as the dreaded zombie apocalypse and the other half say it’s no big deal. You might be confused. The reality is that while it won’t be the end of humanity it is a global health emergency that requires our immediate attention and action.
If you want to know more about the virus itself I’ve put some links to some other videos at the end of this post. Here, I want to focus on the issue of the impacts in different parts of the world, funding a virus outbreak, and access to healthcare for people who bear children.
Late last year the outbreak of Zika in South and Latin America became a global concern as the number of people infected and the symptoms of the virus became more well known. The lowball estimate is that over a million people worldwide have contracted Zika but they expect the virus to spread to almost if not all countries in the world. The severe impacts of Zika will disproportionately affect people who bear children. Currently at least 12,000 women worldwide and 234 pregnant women in the US have confirmed Zika. It is expected that worldwide 2 million pregnant women in the US will be exposed to Zika.
Zika is a low priority in most countries who are struggling economically and socially. As will be demonstrated below, while gaining adequate funding is proving to be difficult regardless, the United States will fare better than many other nations because we have some characteristics that make us less susceptible and better able to manage and treat an outbreak when one occurs. This includes things like the way our homes are built. Most homes in America are well constructed and have screens in the windows. The prevalence of air conditioning means that people aren't spending all day outside where Zika carrying mosquitos are. And, when we do go outside most Americans have access to bug spray and are familiar with using it. When there is an outbreak our advanced, well-developed healthcare system (again, comparative to other countries) will allow for rapid response once detected, quick public messaging, and better access to contraceptives and abortion, when wanted, (again, comparatively...).
Despite these beneficial characteristics of we still need to plan for the spread of Zika in the United states. It is too late to plan once large groups of people have already contracted it. But as the director of the CDC noted, it’s difficult to get people funding and planning until the crisis is happening. In fact, this is the primary frustration of the emergency management community when it comes to preparing communities for any disaster.
Locals and state officials will be responsible for preparation and response in their communities but they need to be included in conversations at the federal level. Communities need surveillance networks to monitor the spread, mosquito control, and involvement of mosquito control officials in the planning process, involvement from everyone in the community.
As an added benefit, the work done to prepare for Zika may also help prepare for the next virus/ disease outbreak in the US because it will strengthen relationships within and across communities while also strengthening the relationships between federal, state, and local officials.
But there are a few problems working against us. There are already a plethora of other diseases and disasters do not have adequate funding. States and local communities do not have the resources they need to implement prevention measures or respond to an outbreak. Most people don’t show symptoms so they don’t know they have it, we can’t trace it when it’s not reported, and they unknowingly spread it to others. We have a health system that is dependent on capitalism. Companies were hesitant to develop better tests until funding was guaranteed… obviously causing delays in our ability to accurately test for the virus and contributing to it’s spread.
Five months ago, in February the White House, under recommendations from the CDC, requested $1.9 billion. This funding was for three primary purposes. The first, research.
In February scientists were just getting started on studying Zika. A leading Zika researcher posted a photo on twitter of a stack of papers about 2 inches thick. The caption read that he was holding in his hands all of the known Zika research (the photos seems to have since been lost to the depths of the internet). It is difficult to tell the public how to protect themselves when you don’t understand the virus – the way it is contracted, the way it is spread, the symptoms, and treatment.
The second purpose was to provide funding for preparedness efforts. This included efforts related to mosquito control and surveillance in the United States, the development and manufacturing of improved diagnostic tests (capitalism!), and vaccine work.
The third purpose was to provide response funding. Specifically, to Puerto Rico, the first part of the United States to see the virus.
Congress needed (spoiler: still needs to) decide on three issues:
1. How much money to give
2. Where that money is coming from
3. And, how that money can be used
Long story short - Congress was like, "LOL, Nope! Zika isn't real. We have immigration laws that stop mosquitos at the border!"... or something.
The Obama administration and the CDC who were definitely really thrilled with this outcome decided to do what they could without support from Congress. In April the CDC decided to redirect all of their funding for other diseases and viruses (like Ebola, AIDS, Cancer, and flu research) to spend on Zika research. Even doing that they still fell short by over a billion dollars AND on top of it, they halted research on all of these other public health issues that really need to be researched. (side note: Ebola, though not still considered an international health emergency is still occurring in Guinea and Liberia, the possibility of a resurgence in greater numbers and in more places is constant, and the recovery process is still ongoing... i.e., we definitely still need to be funding ebola research even though the immediate crisis is over and it's out of the news).
Since April, through a series of back and forths Congress has only been able to agree to fund $1.1 billion. Sounds good right? Nope.
In order to come up with the funding Republicans have cutting $750 million from other critical programs including over $500 million from ACA. Additionally, the Senate has included a restriction on the funds. They cannot be used to fund anything related to contraceptives and abortion.
Sure, because when the leading health officials in THE WORLD say the top priority is to protect pregnant individuals from Zika through increased access to contraception, sex education, and abortion a bunch of old white men in expensive suits should definitely restrict the funding needed to address those priorities. As Earnest put it,
“the fact that the Republican plan limits needed birth control services for women in the United States and Puerto Rico as we seek to stop the spread of a sexually transmitted disease is a clear indication they don’t take seriously the threat from the Zika virus or their responsibility to protect Americans.”
The lack of funding for contraception and abortions is a direct assault against the lives of women in the United States and beyond.
Around the world people who bear children are being told to wait to get pregnant for a few years until Zika is over. There is no doubt in my mind that the public health advice of "just don’t get pregnant until Zika is over" was given by a man with no concept of the realities faced by women around the world, in particular women who live in countries that block access to contraceptives and abortion. This "advice" ignores the realities faced by the majority of women around the world whose access to medical care, sex education, contraception, and abortion are blocked. And, it assumes that women have control over when they get pregnant. In particular, it ignores to high rates of rape experienced around the world. As just one alarming statistic: 90% of pregnancies in El Salvador are unplanned.
In non-Zika times 100,000’s of women are injured every year getting illegal abortions. Requests for illegal abortions in Brazil have doubled. 70% increase for Ecuador, Venezuela and Honduras. And 30% increase in Columbian, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. Alarmed yet? Well, these statistics come from a sample of women with access to the internet, i.e., upper class women. If these statistics hold true for non-upper class women, which we have every reason to believe they do – there has been an increase of thousands of less safe, illegal abortions.
If this outbreak continues history will point to the inaction and partisan bickering as the missed opportunity to stem a pandemic. It should be of great concern that members of our government do not take the threat to public safety seriously. When the medical community, including the director of the CDC tell you funding is needed to prevent and prepare for a virus outbreak it must immediately be addressed.
This case speaks to a much larger issue. Zika is only one example of our politicians who hold funding hostage during crises for their personal political agendas. Whether it’s Zika or the blatant disregard for Climate Change the United States Congress must stop putting their own interests above the people they represent.
Other video sources:
Vox – The Zika virus, explained https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OILBAbva6QA
SciShow – Zika virus: what we know (and what we don’t) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUlGN5XJ5dc