By Sabina Mollot
As the threat of the Zika virus spreads, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials called on Congress on Tuesday to authorize $1.9 billion in funding for research and prevention efforts.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who was at the announcement with the mayor at the city’s public health lab in Bedpan Alley, said the problem was that Congress, specifically Republicans, were only willing to fund $1.1 billion. In February, President Obama had asked for Congress to allocate $1.9 billion.
Additionally, Maloney said, the debate in the house over funding has led to Republicans including a rider that would ban funding to Planned Parenthood, limiting access to abortions and contraceptives to women here and abroad. Meanwhile, Zika, Maloney argued, is known to cause serious birth defects so New York City’s health department has been actively advising safe sex for people traveling to Zika-impacting areas.
“They added a poison pill,” said Maloney, who argued that the immediate health threat posed by Zika shouldn’t be turned into “ideological crusades.”
With Congress deadlocked on the issue, money to fund Zika efforts has been taken from other existing health initiatives, including $589 million in Ebola funding. “They’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul and it’s not a good way to solve a crisis,” Maloney said.
De Blasio noted how the city had launched a $21 million Zika offensive effort in April that includes the spraying of larvacide in different areas and outreach to warn people, especially those who travel to impacted regions, about the disease which has at last official count infected 530 New York State residents. Of those, 438 are city residents. The latter figure includes 49 pregnant women, with all of the cases being travel related except four that were sexually transmitted. One baby in New York City has been born with microcephaly, a severe birth defect caused by Zika that causes the baby to be born with a small head, a sloped back forehead and mental challenges due to a smaller brain.
But, the mayor added, the city can’t afford to battle the disease on its own. The funding provide by the federal government so far is expected to be exhausted by late September.
“We need the federal government to act now,” the mayor said. “People are traveling all the time. It is dangerous to mothers in particular and to babies here in New York City and around the country.”
The sentiment was echoed by Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who said, “We know it’s affecting much of the western hemisphere and we know it’s going to increase in the United States and get worse before it gets better.”
The mayor said the city was doing all it could and had recently doubled the number of mosquito traps. Tracking the insects is part of the city’s offensive plan, along with reduction of the mosquito population. Recently 500 acres in The Bronx were sprayed with larvacide while the next area scheduled to be sprayed is Upper Manhattan. Some research, including testing of people with symptoms, is done at the public health lab, which is located on First Avenue across from Bellevue Hospital.
So far no mosquitoes in the city have been discovered to spread Zika, but de Blasio said, “There’s always that concern. It’s a real concern.”
Since mosquitoes are attracted to stagnant water, the mayor recommended that people call the city about “zombie” or unmaintained pools on private property. However, Health Commissioner Mary Travis Bassett said people shouldn’t just be mindful of pools because the mosquito known to carry the disease, the Aedes Albopictus, tends to be found in smaller, more confined bodies of water. This could include planters or even bottles of water.
The mayor also at one point held up a letter being sent to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to stress the importance of the funding.
Pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant are being advised not to travel to Zika-impacted areas, which include Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean and in area in Miami, Florida.
Maloney mentioned having recently traveled to different countries in Africa and met mothers who have babies with microcephaly. “Some of the babies can’t live except with tubes,” Maloney said. “Some of the mothers didn’t even know they had symptoms and now they have deformed babies. We need more research.”
She added, “I held a little baby in Cape Verde and the (worst part) is not knowing what this is going to mean longterm. We’re just finding out people with ebola are having all sorts of eyesight problems.”
Asked who specifically wanted to withhold funding in Washington, Maloney answered that it was a “party issue.”
Symptoms of having Zika include a fever, headache, joint pain and a rash that goes away. According to Bassett, the risks of a pregnant woman transmitting the disease to the baby are 1-13 percent with the first trimester being the most dangerous.
De Blasio said he was hopeful the fact that “we’re swatting away mosquitoes right now” would help remind the federal government about the issue. “I don’t think the intensity ends at the end of mosquito season, but we’d better find a solution before then.”