The U.S. Isn’t Ready for Zika

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Photo: Alvegaspar/Wikipedia

The Zika virus is headed for the U.S. very soon, medical experts said earlier this week — and we are not ready for it. To be sure, as NBC News reported on Tuesday, no health officials who’ve been monitoring Zika’s spread across certain corners of the world expect the disease to spread as widely here as it has in, say, South or Central America. And yet, once the weather turns warmer in the U.S., many experts do expect to see some smaller outbreaks occur, particularly in southeastern coastal regions that border the Gulf of Mexico.

The big issue here, Zika experts said in news conferences this week, is that the most promising way to fight the virus is by targeting mosquitoes — but, as it currently stands, the U.S. is woefully unorganized and underprepared to do this. “One of the problems in the United States is that we have a patchwork of mosquito-control programs that are generally run at the county level,” said Scott Weaver, a professor of pathology, microbiology, and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “We have nothing at the national level other than advice from the CDC, and most states do not even coordinate their programs at the county level very well.” As a result, some poorer counties have “virtually nothing available” to them, whereas wealthier ones have “sophisticated programs” in place, Weaver told reporters.

And summer — and with it, mosquito season – is right around the corner. “I think that the risk of Zika virus beginning to circulate in the United States in the mainland — it’s already in Puerto Rico, of course — is going to be peaking during the next few weeks,” Weaver said. “That’s because the number of travelers coming into the U.S. with Zika is very high, the temperatures are permissive now for mosquito transmission, and populations of mosquitos are growing. With rainy seasons coming on in Central America and the Caribbean, that could even increase the number of imported cases more.”

What’s most needed now, experts urged, is money. As NBC News medical reporters Maggie Fox and Erika Edwards report:  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and their parent Department of Health and Human Services say they need money to help state and local governments prepare. They need money for better Zika tests, for research on treatments and to help develop a vaccine. … But the White House is in a battle with Congress over paying for all this. President Barack Obama has asked for $1.9 billion in emergency funding for the work. Republicans in Congress say they don’t think that’s the best way to do it and want more accountability for the money, perhaps through the regular appropriations process, which can be extremely slow. “This is absolutely essential,” Fauci said. “We need the $1.9 billion.”

There is good Zika news this week too, however: The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced plans to start testing a vaccine for the virus as early as September. Still, we’ve got a long summer ahead of us.