America’s summer threat: Zika virus – Politico

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If brokered conventions and third-party insurgencies aren’t enough, consider the chaos that Zika could bring to the United States this summer.

If the mosquito-borne virus linked to birth defects hits big — and that’s a big if — it could stir a panic like Ebola, set off an epidemic of finger-pointing and create new fear and acrimony over reproductive rights, global warming and immigration, all at the height of a presidential campaign.

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The disease is moving northward — it’s already in Cuba and Puerto Rico, which declared a public health emergency last month and froze the price of condoms. The mosquitoes that carry Zika are well-entrenched in some southern states and expected as far north as New York City by July. No one knows how many cases of Zika we’ll get, or how many pregnancies it might disrupt.

But should Zika begin spreading in the United States, abortion rights proponents say, recent abortion regulations and restrictions could pose agonizing quandaries for pregnant women. The disorder becomes evident only in the third trimester of pregnancy, and late-term abortions are illegal in 43 states. Many states with the strictest laws lie in the mosquito belt, where Aedes aegypti — whose bite transmits Zika — is particularly plentiful.

“It’s scaring the hell out of everybody and finally making everybody worry that they might need to access legal abortion,” said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist and professor of law at the University of Wisconsin.

Abortion rights advocates say a raft of state laws limiting access to the procedure could make women more vulnerable. The Supreme Court recently heard a challenge to a Texas measure requiring doctors performing abortions to have privileges in nearby hospitals. If upheld, the law could leave the state with a single abortion clinic. Similar laws are on the books in Alabama and Mississippi, and awaiting signatures by governors in Indiana, Florida and South Carolina.

“The obstacles the GOP has been throwing in the path of women affect those with the least ability to access family planning, and in states like mine these poor women are the most exposed to the risk of Zika virus,” said Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.),chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Congressional Democrats are pushing GOP leadership to show concern about Zika-linked birth defects by boosting support for family planning services in Latin America and in the United States. They’ve demanded a halt to a GOP probe of fetal tissue researchers, noting that such investigations are key to unlocking how Zika damages fetal brains.

And on Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that Speaker Paul Ryan keep Congress in session to deal with Zika, Flint’s lead problem and the opioid crisis.

Republicans point out that millions in foreign aid already go to family planning. House Energy and Commerce member Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) co-sponsored a bill to incentivize Zika vaccine research, but she opposes liberalization of abortion laws.

“I am a pro-life member of Congress, and will continue to support legislation that prevents abortions after 20 weeks, except when necessary to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest,” she told POLITICO.

In general, mosquito-borne illness spreads less efficiently in the U.S. than in Latin America because Americans live further apart, spend more time in air conditioned houses and control mosquitoes better. CDC and local public health officials have well-established mosquito control systems, although the administration says they need more funding.

Most likely, Zika would cause isolated outbreaks in the U.S., just as dengue, a similar virus, popped up in recent years in Hawaii, Florida and southern Texas.

But even that could have an outsize political impact. Ebola caused a panic in the United States in 2014 although it killed only one person and no one was running for president.

At one point during the Ebola scare, Donald Trump tweeted, “The United States must immediately institute strong travel restrictions or Ebola will be all over the United States — a plague like no other!”

Travel restrictions were not imposed and Ebola did not spread over the U.S. But politically tinged fear did.

“Ebola was like the perfect storm,” said Ana Ayala, a professor at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “Zika is an even more perfect storm because you’re seeing an intersection of global health security, infectious disease and reproductive rights.”

In addition to spreading through mosquito bites, Zika stays alive in semen for up to two months and can be spread through sexand, possibly, blood transfusions, which adds to the uncertainty and fear. The virus can also cause a neurological illness in adults called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

An explosive Zika outbreak in Brazil has left 5,000 babies with small brains and heads, a condition called microcephaly. The epidemic has pushed Latin American countries with strict abortion laws to consider bending them, although none have done so yet and back-alley abortions are increasing.

Whether or not Zika stirs up the abortion debate in the U.S., it’s already pointing to problems in public health readiness, officials say.

Congress has refused to pony up $1.8 billion requested by the administration to deal with the virus, leading CDC officials to pause other programs and “rub together nickels,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, who wants the money to develop better tests, fund vaccine development and strengthen surveillance in the most vulnerable parts of the United States, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii and southern states such as Florida and Texas.

The nation’s public health infrastructure is a perennial low man on the federal budget. Energy and Commerce Republicans voted Tuesday to slash health funds that could go to fighting epidemics like Zika.

“It would be good for Congress to appropriate the $1.8 billion, but that’s really just a random act of preparedness” that doesn’t build long term capacity to respond to disasters, said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

“Whether it was a dysfunctional health care system in terms of coping with Ebola, a calamity of lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan or the current Zika outbreak, we are lurching from one crisis to the next, always fighting the last war or the current threat,” he said.

America’s summer threat: Zika virus – Politico