Zika mosquitoes are biting in America now — and we’re still not ready
This week, mosquitoes capable of transmitting Zika start biting in Florida, the Gulf states and southern California. It’s the “virus from hell,” warns Peter Hotez, Dean of Baylor University’s School of Tropical Medicine.
Hotez is urging women to delay getting pregnant. He worries expectant mothers in these states are already being bitten and next spring they’ll “start giving birth to brain-damaged infants.” Doctors are investigating whether infants — up to age 1 — are in danger from these mosquito bites because their brains are still developing.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers face a different threat: sexual transmission. It’s unknown whether local mosquitoes will spread the virus. But even without mosquitoes biting, New York already has more Zika infections than any other state.
The virus is being brought here by immigrants and travelers exposed in infested areas like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador. Their sex partners need to know the virus can survive in semen for six months or longer and also possibly spread through deep kissing.
Dating tip: Ask to see his passport.
The gravest danger is to women who can get pregnant, but taxpayers will also feel the impact. Area hospitals, including Mount Sinai and North Shore University Hospital, are preparing for a surge in Zika maternity cases. Health officials refuse to disclose how many will be uninsured immigrants whose health bills will be paid by taxpayers.
Any pregnant woman — here legally or not — can get emergency Medicaid to cover prenatal care and child birth. Babies born in the United States are automatically eligible for lifetime care if disabled, which, in the case of Zika-caused ailments, could cost $10 million per child.
Anticipating public outrage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is hiding the issue. The agency labels all Zika infections brought into the United States as “travel related” — lumping together Americans who caught it on a trip and migrants coming here for care.
Texas clinics are already seeing pregnant women from Central America with Zika.
Next step: Looking for local mosquitoes carrying the virus. It’s like “looking for a needle in a haystack,” Hotez says, describing the search in Texas. Health authorities won’t actually know Zika is being spread by mosquitoes until “a patient comes in (with a fever, achy joints or a rash) . . . and a physician has the wherewithal to order a Zika test.”
You can’t buy a Zika test in a drugstore. But health departments are preparing to test patients exposed in affected countries or complaining of symptoms. Results take up to 20 days. New York City will be testing “very large” numbers of women for Zika, according to Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Jay Varma. So far, 18 pregnant women have tested positive.
That means their unborn children could develop birth defects that doctors originally called microcephaly but now term fetal brain disruption syndrome. The virus halts growth of blood vessels in the unborn child’s brain, causing the skull to collapse because of the absence of brain tissue inside. “Once a pregnant mother gets infected, that’s it,” says Hotez.
But state and local health departments in the Gulf region are “absolutely” unprepared to combat Zika mosquitoes. That’s also true in California, where the risk is high from Los Angeles to San Diego.
Exterminating these mosquitoes “is unrealistic with current budget and staffing limitations,” says Chris Barker, epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis.
Democrats accuse Republicans in Congress of endangering the nation’s women by failing to rubber-stamp President Obama’s $1.9 billion Zika emergency-funding request. Nonsense. Only about a third of the money is intended for the 50 states and a mere sliver of that is for mosquito eradication.
A whopping $500 million is foreign aid for Central and South America. Memo to lawmakers: You might want to actually read the bill.
CDC officials blather that a disease anywhere is a disease everywhere. True — and hunger anywhere is hunger everywhere, too. We still feed our own kids first.
No one can predict how the Zika threat will play out, but until we know, the priority needs to be protecting residents of the 50 states and Puerto Rico.
Betsy McCaughey is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.