You have probably heard that the Zika virus is spread by mosquitos. Public health officials say it is spreading rapidly, and the World Health Organization calls it “a threat of alarming proportions.”
It took 60 years for Zika to make it out of Africa, where it originated, to Asia, but just another eight to reach Latin America. Today, it has infected people in 62 countries, including the United States and pretty much all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere.
In fact, Zika is already here in Ohio, with 12 Ohioans having been diagnosed with it. Thus far, it looks like all of the Americans who have become infected did so either by traveling somewhere else and being bitten by a mosquito, or by sexual contact with someone who had Zika.
For most adults, Zika is not fatal. But for the most vulnerable, like the elderly or the unborn, it can be a sentence to a life of suffering and disability, or even death.
It can have tragic consequences for babies. When Zika spread to Brazil in 2015, health officials reported an increased incidence of babies born with a birth defect that causes abnormally small head and brain size. We know of more than 900 confirmed cases of Brazilian babies born with this birth defect since then, with another 4,000 suspected cases. Officials also reported an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes the body’s immune system to attack its own nerves.
These are just two of the neurological side effects that can result, and like Zika, they are currently incurable.
There’s a lot that we don’t know about the Zika virus. Sometimes we don’t even know it when we see it: it’s difficult to distinguish from similar viruses like dengue, and it can only be detected for a few days in the blood. Four out of five people who have it don’t even know that they have it.
We do know that Zika is spread by mosquitos, and that it also can be transmitted through sexual contact. Because most people who have it don’t know that they have it, they’re even more likely to spread it.
I believe that we have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us. Protecting people from Zika is one concrete way to do that. Here’s what I’m doing about it in the United States Senate.
I have sponsored and voted for bipartisan legislation that President Obama signed into law that will give accelerated, priority review at the FDA for new drugs and vaccines that could treat Zika.
Recently, I joined my colleagues in the Senate to vote for a bipartisan agreement to provide $1.1 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika. The vast majority of this funding would go to strengthen health programs here in the United States, including research and development toward a vaccine, as well as support international programs to prevent Zika from crossing our borders again. Funding would also go toward health services for pregnant women, improving infrastructure for testing for Zika, and enhance mosquito control programs. I believe that this investment up front will save a lot over the longer term and save lives.
I have also urged the Secretary of the Air Force to engage the reservists at Youngstown’s Air Reserve Station, who are ready to help eliminate the mosquitoes that cause the threat. The 910th Airlift Wing in Youngstown is the only fixed-wing aerial spray capability in our military. The 910th has played key roles in other public health emergencies, spraying millions of acres in Louisiana and Texas after Hurricane Katrina to keep mosquitoes from spreading infectious disease. As Rear Admiral Stephen Redd, M.D., told me in a hearing of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, many counties across the country do not have effective mosquito control infrastructure; some have hardly any at all. He went on to say that there could be a role for the 910th in these areas, and that “the Zika virus is pointing out the need to revitalize mosquito control efforts.” I couldn’t agree with him more. We should use some of the resources we voted for this week to upgrade the Youngstown military mosquito abatement efforts we already have at our disposal.
My priority in the United States Senate is to keep Ohioans safe, and to give them peace of mind. If we can contain the Zika virus from spreading further, then we can do both.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.