The Zika virus continues to be a major threat to women in and outside of the U.S., as a top government expert announced earlier this week. Accurate diagnoses are often hard to come by, with many pregnant mothers receiving false assurances that they aren’t infected. Even worse, only one out of four infants born to mothers who do receive correct, positive diagnoses are getting the recommended follow-up brain scan to ensure they’re healthy.
A recent House of Representatives hearing on the virus illustrated the overwhelming confusion surrounding the Zika epidemic. Thousands of birth defects have resulted from Zika infections, but according to Dr. Lyle Petersen of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many women and children are going undiagnosed.
“Only about one in four babies born to women with Zika virus infection during pregnancy are receiving the recommended brain imaging after birth,” Petersen told Congressional leaders during the hearing. “Some brain abnormalities are only identified with brain imaging, suggesting that the impact of Zika on babies born to mothers infected with the virus may be underestimated.”
Until 2015, Zika was relatively unknown to those living in the United States. The disease is initially spread by mosquito bites, but can also be spread from an infected pregnant mother to her child or through sexual intercourse. The CDC also believes the Zika virus can be spread through blood transfusions.
How Zika Came to the United States
While most people who are infected with Zika experience fairly mild symptoms, including fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, and headaches, it’s much more serious for pregnant mothers and unborn children. Zika infections have been linked to miscarriages and stillbirth, as well as many other birth defects. The most terrifying of these defects is called microcephaly, which damages a baby’s developing brain, results in a much smaller head, and permanent brain damage.
While Zika was formerly thought to be limited to Latin America, the disease has now spread to the United States — likely in much higher numbers than estimated.
“Our most recent surveillance data show that we have documented 36,583 cases of Zika virus disease in the U.S. territories and 5,282 in U.S. states and DC,” Petersen told those at the hearing. “Of these cases, we have identified 224 cases of Zika in Florida and Texas due to local mosquito transmission,” he said. “CDC has also documented 3,795 pregnant women with laboratory evidence of Zika virus infection in U.S. territories and 1,845 in U.S. states and D.C.”
Is There Enough Funding for the Fight Against Zika?
A laboratory’s level of efficiency is determined by three factors — the people working in it, the processes they follow, and the equipment they have (and how they use it). Unfortunately, without adequate funding, even the best diagnostic labs will struggle. Perhaps that’s one reason why women diagnosed with Zika are not receiving the follow-up treatments they need.
In December 2016, the CDC announced in a press release that it was providing “$184 million in funding to states, territories, local jurisdictions, and universities to support efforts to protect Americans from Zika virus infection and associated adverse health outcomes, including microcephaly and other serious birth defects. These awards are part of the $350 million in funding provided to CDC under the Zika Response and Preparedness Appropriations Act of 2016.” However, this funding was approved eight months after the Obama administration initially requested Zika aid.
When the Zika virus first emerged, there were no reliable diagnostic tests for it. Today, there are 16 different Zika diagnostic tests, but according to the Government Accountability Office, they’re not being used in a way that provides reliable results.
“The 16 Zika virus diagnostic tests authorized during the outbreak varied in their performance and operational characteristics. For example, they varied in their ability to detect the virus and provide accurate results,” said Timothy Persons, chief GAO scientist, in a testimony to Congress.
Persons added that both the CDC and the FDA have often failed to provide the information needed for accuracy.
“Users of the tests also encountered challenges, including determining the most accurate test to use, having access to different tests, and obtaining equipment needed to conduct the tests,” he explained. “GAO also determined that CDC and FDA did not consistently communicate sufficient information about diagnostic tests, including providing clear information that would have enabled users to more easily compare performance across different tests.”
Further, women who have been positively diagnosed with Zika receive the recommendation to continue getting brain scans for their babies, even if they were not born with any noticeable defects. But Petersen said this isn’t happening, either.
And according to Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), the budgetary cuts proposed by the Trump administration could make the situation even worse.
“This is so counterproductive. Now is not time to make draconian cuts to the agencies tasked with fighting Zika or other health crises,” DeGette said during the hearing.
“As we stand now, there are too many unanswered questions about the transmission of Zika and the medical consequences,” added Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Florida). “Our families are at risk because of that. They are also at risk because we face a funding cliff for the Zika response.”
How Can You Protect Yourself From Zika-Carrying Mosquitoes?
As spring turns into summer, peak mosquito season will only increase the threat of Zika transmission. As of 2016, Americans spent roughly $12.29 billion on pest control services each year, but now many local governments are taking proactive steps to fight mosquitoes, too. In Florida, state officials are even releasing thousands of mosquitoes infected with a bacteria that they believe will prevent Zika-carrying mosquitoes from laying viable eggs. In other cities, officials are using pesticides on likely mosquito breeding grounds, which includes virtually any standing water.
Because there is no vaccine for the disease, people need to take extra care to protect themselves from mosquito exposure this summer, especially if they’re traveling outside the country, are pregnant, or live in a U.S. region where cases have been definitively diagnosed.
For more information on preventing the spread of the Zika virus this summer, visit the CDC website.