Congress Leaves Zika Measure Hanging; Then, There’s Really Bad News

Just one day after Congress adjourned for a seven-week recess without approving any of the $1.9 billion requested by the Obama administration to fund the effort to fight the Zika outbreak, New York City’s health department on Friday reported the first documented case of sexual transmission of Zika from a woman to her male partner, raising new concerns about the spread of the virus, which is typically contracted through mosquito bites.

The first case of female-to-male sexual transmission of the Zika virus raises the prospect that the disease could spread more widely beyond the countries where it is already endemic and largely transmitted by mosquitoes. For months, there has been growing concern about the dangers of sexual transmission, but until now the virus has been thought to pass only from men to women or between two men.

“This represents the first reported occurrence of female-to-male sexual transmission of Zika virus,” said a report issued on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The evidence of a previously undocumented means of transmission is forcing officials to rethink, once again, the guidance for healthcare providers and the general public on how to limit the danger of infection, as the pool of those who could be at risk widens considerably.

The finding has led the CDC to recommend that pregnant women who have sex with women who might be infected with Zika use protection or do not have sex during the duration of the pregnancy. Being infected while pregnant can cause the fetus to develop microcephaly, a birth defect resulting in abnormally small heads and likely brain damage. No female-to-female sexual transmission of Zika has been reported.

The agency did not identify the woman other than to say she was in her 20s and lived in New York City. After returning from an area of the world where Zika is spreading, she had vaginal sex with a man in his 20s who did not use a condom. Seven days after the couple had sex, the man developed a fever, joint pain, a rash and conjunctivitis. Three days after his symptoms started, he sought care from the same doctor his female partner had seen. The doctor, suspecting Zika, alerted the city’s public health department and tested his urine and blood. The test showed Zika in his urine.

On Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden urged U.S. lawmakers to approve extra money to fight the Zika outbreak, but on Thursday, Congress adjourned for a seven-week recess without approving any of the $1.9 billion requested by the Obama administration to fund the effort. The CDC recommends that all pregnant women who have a sex partner who has traveled to or resides in an area with Zika use protective measures such as condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy.

Steve’s Take: As though deliberately flaunting its ineptitude, Congress adjourned on Thursday and slithered from a sizzling Washington leaving behind long overdue legislation to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Oh, and let’s not forget the continuing impasse over lawmakers’ basic job of funding agency budgets. The double collapse highlights a bitter stalemate on Capitol Hill, even as Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed wins on drug abuse legislation and other, less important measures.

“Republicans chose to put their ideological battle against Planned Parenthood ahead of their responsibilities as legislators to help fight Zika,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). The administration still reportedly has some Zika funding at its disposal but inaction on the Zika issue this summer may lead to delays in developing a much-needed vaccine and effective mosquito-fighting techniques.

And, if the puzzling partisanship on such a crucial public health issue wasn’t hard enough for us citizens to grasp and swallow, we now know that the Zika virus can be transmitted from a woman to her male partner–effectively doubling the risk pool from what we had previously thought.

And then I read a little-publicized report that the Zika outbreak rampaging through Latin America will likely burn itself out in the next two to three years, based on the fact that people develop immunity to the virus after an initial infection, British scientists said on Thursday.

The researchers, whose work is published in the journal Science, estimated that infections from the mosquito-borne virus will become so widespread in affected countries that populations will develop what is called “herd immunity.” This occurs when a high percentage of a population has become immune to an infection either through developing natural immunity or through vaccination, making a wider outbreak less likely.

That would prevent further transmission of the Zika virus for at least a decade, with only smaller, intermittent outbreaks, they said.

“Because the virus is unable to infect the same person twice–thanks to the immune system generating antibodies to kill it–the epidemic reaches a stage where there are too few people left to infect for transmission to be sustained,” study author Neil Ferguson of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London said in a statement.

At the risk of pointing out what would appear to be exceedingly obvious, the good news is that the Zika epidemic will likely burn itself out in 2 to 3 years. But the numbing reality is that the infection rate is predicted to be very high. There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Zika.

The CDC is warning us not to travel to an area with Zika. As I’ve said before, this area will almost certainly include portions of the United States, which will become an “affected country.” With a very high infection rate now predicted by the experts, the chances of being infected while pregnant is far greater than anyone previously suspected.

Being infected while pregnant can cause the fetus to develop microcephaly and other birth defects. We need a vaccine now, not two years from now when Zika has run its course here in the U.S. Collectively, we need to put maximum pressure on our congressional representatives to put aside their rose-colored glasses and stupid partisanship.

We desperately need their help with sufficient funding to minimize the Zika tragedy here. Isn’t protecting us all, especially our childbearing-age mothers, their primary job? Or do we have to call in the military? Frankly, I believe we’d be better served.