National and local health care officials on Sunday said cuts in federal spending to combat the Zika virus means fewer pregnant women will be tested and there will be less money available to develop a vaccine and research how the disease affects fetal brains.
Doctors and government health officials joined forces Sunday with New York’s two senators to decry a measure in the House that nearly halved the $1.1 billion Senate bill to fund an emergency response to prevent a further outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus in the United States and Puerto Rico this summer.
The House approved $622 million — with $352 million taken from the existing national Ebola prevention program, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Sunday at the Manhattan news conference held with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand along with doctors and local health care officials.
New York has 114 cases of Zika, Schumer said. That’s the largest concentration in the continental U.S.; Puerto Rico has more, with 122. There are 279 confirmed cases nationwide.
“Congress needs to stop twiddling its thumbs,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “We have 114 cases in New York. We can still beat Zika but we have to be prepared for the next months. We need to come up with a vaccine, get a better understanding of the virus and its connections with other diseases.”
Gillibrand said she supports the $1.1 billion Senate allocation.
“The scary part is we don’t know the effects this virus has on the brain — it could be severe or leave a child intellectually disabled,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who spoke Sunday at the news conference.
“Right now, a lot of Americans do not see the threat and how it will impact people in the U.S.,” said Dreyer, who leads the 64,000-member organization. He said Monday members will call congressional representatives to approve the Senate’s $1.1 billion allocation. President Obama proposed a $1.9 billion appropriation.
Pregnant women who test positive are being monitored as their fetuses develop. Newborns with the virus often have microcephaly, in which the infant is born with a small head due to an underdeveloped brain.
Dr. Jill Rabin, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, said at the news conference cuts in federal funding will stall efforts to create a registry of pregnant women who tested positive for the virus and are being tracked. “We need money for diagnostic testing, ultrasounds and track the impact on the pregnancy and the baby.”
Rabin said the numbers of women being tested is on the rise weekly in Nassau County, as well as in New York City and Westchester County. She said patients who were visiting Puerto Rico or Central and South American countries, where the virus has been spreading, are asking to be tested. She said one of her patients in Nassau County changed her wedding plans in Puerto Rico for fear of contracting the virus.
Marisa Raphael, deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said 120 traps have been set up in the five boroughs to monitor mosquitoes that may be carrying the virus. The city then targets that area for pesticide eradication. A funding cut would hamper the program and result in personnel layoffs.