This morning, the Florida Department of Health reported a “high likelihood” of the first localized transmission of Zika virus from mosquito to person in the United States.
Up until now, the more than 1,600 documented Zika cases in the continental U.S. have been related to travel abroad; however, the news from Florida likely means that local mosquitoes are carrying the virus. The news also means that although public health officials have long warned that this day would come, local Zika transmission got here quicker than help from Congress did. Back in February, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding based on recommendations from the public health and scientific community. Unfortunately, ruling members of Congress refused to grant that request (one Congress member even labeled the funding a “slush fund”) and instead, Congress left for recess earlier this month without passing emergency Zika funds.
In a news release about the Florida cases, Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), said: “Sadly, we knew this outcome was probable with each passing day that Congress failed to fund Zika protection and response. And now Congress has adjourned for summer recess.
“Public health is AGAIN being asked to do more with less to keep Americans safe. We’ll do the best we can. Damage has already been done, but when Congress comes back in September, it must make sending bipartisan Zika legislation to the president a top priority.”
According to the Florida Department of Health, public health officials believe active transmission is currently happening in a very small, one-square-mile area of Miami-Dade County. The agency stated that even though no trapped mosquitoes have yet tested positive for Zika, officials believe that four human Zika cases are the result of being bitten by local mosquitoes. The Florida Department of Health reports:
The department is actively conducting door-to-door outreach and urine sample collection in the impacted area and will share more details as they become available. The results from these efforts will help (the) department determine the number of people affected. These local cases were identified by clinicians who brought them to the attention of the department. In addition, blood banks in the area are currently excluding donations from impacted areas until screening protocols are in place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working closely with Florida health officials as they investigate the likely locally transmitted cases. In a CDC news release, Lyle Petersen, incident manager for the agency’s Zika response, said: “We anticipate that there may be additional cases of ‘homegrown’ Zika in the coming weeks. Our top priority is to protect pregnant women from the potentially devastating harm caused by Zika.” CDC Director Tom Frieden said the agency expects “isolated” cases of Zika, but doesn’t expect widespread transmission in the U.S.
On the funding issue, CDC has given Florida more than $8 million in Zika-specific funding and about $27 million in emergency preparedness monies that can be used for Zika efforts. Earlier this month, CDC announced it would begin awarding nearly $60 million to states, cities and territories in support of Zika response and protection efforts — that funding will be made available on Monday. Still, as The Pump Handle reported in May, a lack of congressional action on emergency Zika funds is hampering the country’s public health response and forcing CDC to redirect critically needed funds away from state and local public health agencies.
“This is the news we’ve been dreading,” said Edward R.B. McCabe, senior vice president and chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, of the locally acquired Florida cases. “It’s only a matter of time before babies are born with microcephaly, a severe brain defect, due to local transmission of Zika in the continental U.S. Our nation must accelerate education and prevention efforts to save babies from this terrible virus. Federal, state and local authorities are doing the best they can with the limited resources available to them, but much more is needed.“
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.