LOCAL LAWMAKERS BRACE THEMSELVES FOR ZIKA IN THE ABSENCE OF FEDERAL ACTION

Jun 6, 2016 by

CREDIT: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

An aedes aegypti mosquito photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.

It’s no longer a “what if”: The Zika virus has landed in United States.

Cases of the mosquito-transmitted disease have now been detected in 45 states and all three U.S. territories — and the threat is only growing. On Tuesday, the first Zika-infected woman in the mainland U.S. gave birth to a baby with microcephaly, the fetal brain deformity linked to Zika.

But federal lawmakers may be too late to make a substantial impact to stem the spread of the virus. Although health experts have been raising the alarm for months, Congress recently broke for vacation without passing a comprehensive funding bill to help states prepare for the epidemic.

Just outside the walls of the Capitol rests one of the hundreds of communities waiting for federal aid. Washington D.C. is a humid haven for millions of mosquitoes during its coming summer months. In lieu of congressional support, D.C. health officials have taken the battle into their own hands, working in part with the CDC to create a “Comprehensive Zika Action Plan.”

In May, volunteers in matching “Fight The Bite” shirts waved down passersby outside of eight D.C. community centers — one in each of the District’s wards. Inside, people could pick up a “Zika Kit” (a plastic bag with D.C.-branded mosquito repellent, larvae-killing floats to place in standing water, and both male and female condoms) and talk more about the virus with one of the city’s public health experts. City officials plan to replicate the event again in July.

Dr. Anjali Talwalkar, the senior deputy director of D.C.’s Community Health Administration, said it’s important to educate D.C. residents about Zika — and quell any misconceptions they may be hearing in the media.

“It was valuable to have a face from the Department of Health out and sharing most accurate information to people. We made sure people knew they should only be concerned if they’re pregnant, or planning on it,” she said. “The average person doesn’t need to worry too much.”

That’s especially true because, according to Talwalkar, the two breeds of mosquito known to carry Zika aren’t very common in the D.C. area. There have only been five confirmed cases of Zika in the District — and all of them were acquired internationally.

Across the country, health officials have yet to find any evidence of Zika being transmitted on U.S. soil. Still, states are working to prepare. As many as 2 million pregnant women could be at risk of being exposed the virus this summer as mosquito season is in full force.

Even without any movement in a deadlocked Congress, the federal government is finding ways to give states some flexibility to combat mosquitoes.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that states may apply for $25 million in grant funds to boost their local Zika prevention efforts. The agency emphasized it’s only a stopgap measure. “These funds will allow states and territories to continue implementation of their Zika preparedness plans, but are not enough to support a comprehensive Zika response and can only temporarily address what is needed,” said Stephen C. Redd, the director of CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

And on Wednesday, the federal government announced it would be extending Medicaid coverage to pay for mosquito repellent.

In general, most major cities have been preparing for Zika by spraying standing water with larvae-killing insecticide, testing local mosquito populations for Zika, and using informative campaigns to get residents up to speed on the realistic threat.

In addition to community meetings, D.C. is doing its part in other ways. Over the past month, city staffers have been making rounds spraying insecticide in areas prone to mosquito breeding. The city also collects mosquito samples from each ward on a weekly basis.

“So far, no mosquito has tested positive for Zika,” Talwalkar said. But, she added, the city will continue to test samples into late October.

It’s hard to guess what kind of impact Zika will have on the District. Talwalkar said the Department of Health will work closely with local health providers to keep doctors in the loop about any updates, especially for pregnant women.

“We want to make sure they have the best information,” she said. “When we get it.”

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