Panel: Zika virus is signficant crisis for public health
By Brian Ballou
DAVIE — Public health officials on the frontline of the Zika outbreak met Monday morning at Nova Southeastern University to discuss ways to combat the virus in South Florida and beyond, foreboding an epidemic as the peak season for transmission approaches.
"It's time we start to treat Zika like a public health hurricane," said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, of Boca Raton, who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Deutch and fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of Weston, moderated the panel discussion that included about 30 experts, including officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who participated through videoconference.
Florida's warm climate, its geographical setting as a gateway to the Caribbean and South America, and its popularity as a tourist destination make it especially susceptible to becoming one of the most afflicted states.
"Projections at this point really are not possible," said Michael Beach, the CDC's deputy incident manager of the Zika virus. He said the center is, though, preparing for a worst-case scenario.
"Planning to address populations in the millions, but I don't see that happening at this time," Beach said.
The CDC now has approximately 1,200 employees involved in the response.
"What started in a small forest in Uganda is now engulfing the Americas," Beach said. The virus moved through South Asia, Micronesia, Brazil and the Americas.
"I'm leaving here more troubled than when I arrived," Wasserman Schultz said at the conclusion of the 90-minute discussion. "This is a far more significant and impactful crisis than we've talked about before publicly."
There are over 600 diagnosed cases of Zika in the U.S., but with 4 out of 5 people infected not showing symptoms, the number could be much higher, said Jose Szapocznik of the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
"The other 80 percent, we have no idea where they are, so this is a lot more serious," he said.
Of Florida's 165 cases, 50 are in Miami-Dade County and 19 cases are in Broward County, according to local health officials. All of those infected contracted the disease abroad; there have been no locally transmitted cases through mosquito bites. The virus can also be transmitted sexually.
The most graphic of Zika's effects is microcephaly, a birth defect that has already manifested in hundreds of newborns in Brazil and other countries and threatens to become a health crisis here.
"It destroys the cortex, part of the brain, and the skull collapses on the part that is destroyed," Beach said. "This is a grave issue that we need to focus on ... we've not seen something like this in 50 years, a virus associated with birth defects."
Panelists discussed efforts already underway, including laboratory work to develop a vaccine, efforts to ensure that blood donations are Zika-free and genetically modifying the mosquito that is known to carry the virus to dramatically reduce its population. It'll be several months, perhaps not until the Fall, until the search for a vaccine reaches the clinical study phase.
President Barack Obama asked Congress earlier this year for a $1.9 billion emergency appropriation to fund the effort to fight Zika. The Senate has come up with a $1.1 billion version, while a Republican-backed bill in the House would allocate $622 million. Both houses are expected to take up the bills this summer.
Michael Doyle, the director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said the efforts to fight the virus should be comprehensive and urgent, beginning with the tiny transmitter.
"Our goal in the Florida Keys is to kill mosquitos, dead mosquitos don't transmit, that's the bottom line."