Hey Congress: We have the power to stop Zika, but we need your help

Deadly carriers of disease: Aedes aegypti mosquitoes
Paulo Whitaker | Reuters
Deadly carriers of disease: Aedes aegypti mosquitoes

I've woken up every night this past week feeling restless and anxious with thoughts of pregnant women giving birth to babies with Zika-related birth defects. As a mother myself, I cannot sleep thinking of the lifetime of hardships awaiting these women, their children and families.

In addition to being a mom, I'm also a physician and former state and federal health official. With this background, I know we have the power to prevent these birth defects, if only there were sufficient funding available from the U.S. government complemented with private sector support. With the Zika public health emergency now in its seventh month, I am greatly concerned by the reluctance to provide resources that will help prevent Zika from affecting more babies.

We've seen images of newborn babies in other countries with birth defects stemming from the virus that invades and destroys the brains of developing fetuses, causing microcephaly. Babies exposed to Zika prenatally can have a range of other problems, such as hearing loss, vision problems and developmental delays.

Now, in the United States and territories like Puerto Rico, where I recently visited, children are being born with similar birth defects. And Zika has been transmitted by mosquitoes in parts of Miami. I fear it's only a matter of time before we see larger numbers of birth defects here. Babies at risk could be your child, grandchild or neighbor's child.

As a physician, I know how devastating severe birth defects can be to families and society. Dreams for a child's bright future are shattered and replaced by endless appointments and financial obligations for medical care and services. And, as a former Medicaid medical director, I've seen how challenging it is for states to pay for the special care needed for these children—and how frustrated parents can become when limits or denials are enforced.

Time is not on our side. Delaying action will lead to greater morbidity, mortality and cost. Based on the latest figures, there are more than 970 pregnant women in the United States and our territories with laboratory evidence of Zika—and that number is likely low. Some of these women are facing agonizing decisions as ultrasound imaging demonstrates abnormalities.

"Time is not on our side. Delaying action will lead to greater morbidity, mortality and cost."

Prevention is the key to the Zika threat and until a vaccine is developed and proven safe, the best prevention involves a variety of countermeasures. These include improving mosquito control, developing communication campaigns to ensure pregnant women and their communities know the danger of Zika and how to protect themselves from it, and ensuring access to contraception for women who choose to avoid pregnancy during the Zika outbreak.

At the CDC Foundation, we are extremely grateful to our donors who have stepped forward to help prevent Zika-related birth defects—but more support is crucial. And we have heard some donors indicate that they are reluctant to step forward without sufficient government support for the response or in a politically charged environment.

There are three actions our country must undertake to beat back Zika.

First, I urge our nation's leaders to reconvene Congress and work together across the aisle to push through a funding package compromise sufficient to address the outbreak; the administration has sought $1.9 billion to fight Zika.

Second, I urge the private sector to step forward with additional support. We are most effective as a society when we can bring together both the public and private sectors to address large challenges. The CDC Foundation is seeking $35 to $50 million to bridge critical gaps and extend CDC's domestic emergency response efforts to combat the Zika virus and protect those at greatest risk.

Third, I believe it is time for our country to establish an ongoing public health disaster rapid response fund, so that we are ready to protect the public's health from global and domestic threats. Having funding available at the moment of need before emergencies get out of control is key.

Looking ahead, it's imperative we all work together to have the crucial resources we need at the onset of an outbreak to mitigate the harm. Funding was secured in response to the Ebola epidemic, which had 28,650 cases and 11,325 deaths. But the funding came late, and no doubt the epidemic would have been better contained had the funds arrived months earlier.

Our public health officials at the national, state and local levels know how to fight Zika and prevent birth defects. Now, let's give them the tools they need to get the job done—including the funding required to end this outbreak.

Commentary by Dr. Judith Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation. She previously served as a CDC deputy director and as health commissioner for Indiana. Follow her on Twitter @DrJudyMonroe.

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