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Proposed funding cuts may increase Zika threat: Health officials

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The budget proposed by President Donald Trump combined with a bill to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law could worsen the threat Zika poses to the United States this year, according to local and national health care experts.

As of May 24, 5,300 cases of Zika have been reported on the U.S. mainland, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With summer coming, the Zika threat will get worse,” Claude Jacob, president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials and chief public health officer, Cambridge Public Health Department in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said during a webinar on Wednesday.

Despite the Zika threat, Congress took 233 days last year to provide emergency funding to address the disease, he said.

“The president’s proposed budget continues to threaten our ability to address Zika and other public health challenges,” Mr. Jacob said, citing the proposal to reduce the CDC budget by $1.2 billion, as well as a potential $40 million reduction to the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Infectious Diseases program and a $109 million proposed reduction to the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program.

“A cut of $1.2 billion to that agency would be dire because so much of CDC’s money goes to state and local departments to support their public health activities such as preparing for and responding to Zika,” said Laura Hanen, interim executive director and chief of government affairs of NACCHO. “You need to have sustained federal funding over time to deal with the day-to-day emergencies that health departments are facing. And then when something like Ebola or Zika comes along that has unique circumstances and needs additional funding from the federal government, then you can go to Congress and ask for supplemental funds.”

“Combined with the threat of the American Health Care Act passed by the U.S. House (of Representatives), our elected leaders in Washington are poised to do lasting damage to disease tracking and preparedness and response systems that protect Americans from infectious diseases like Zika,” Mr. Jacob said.

Much of the webinar discussion focused on the impact on pregnant women and their newborns, but Zika also poses a threat from an occupational safety and health perspective.

Construction workers and other employees working outdoors are at “significantly higher risk of exposure, especially in those areas where we know there to be mosquito-related growth or mosquito-related activity,” said Dr. Oscar Alleyne, senior advisor for Public Health Programs, NACCHO, in Washington, D.C.

Health officials are expending significant resources to minimize the risk to employees, including in the application of mosquito repellants and other mechanisms to reduce the chances of mosquito bites, he said.

“The mosquito of interest, the Aedes aegypti, is a very aggressive mosquito,” Dr. Alleyne said. “They love to be around the human population so the idea is to ensure that as individuals in an occupational setting are out in areas where there are mosquito breeding sites to take all efforts necessary to reduce their risk or likelihood of being bitten and therefore the likelihood of contracting the virus.”

The Aedes aegypti is known to exist in the Gulf Coast region of the United States and health officials have seen cases of local transmissions in the region, making it a critical area of concern, but the entire continent needs to be vigilant on Zika, he said.