By Bill Parry
The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency Monday after the explosion of cases in South and Latin America and the Caribbean. The disease, which is transmitted by mosquitoes or possibly through sex, is believed to be linked to microcephaly, a condition that is causing babies to be born with small heads and brain damage.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had pushed WHO to declare the emergency Sunday when he proposed a federal plan aimed at containing the Zika virus outbreak.
Concern about the virus has rippled across Queens, where there are large Latin American and Caribbean populations. The Rockaways, where West Nile first entered the United States on mosquitoes, could be vulnerable.
“With at least five Zika cases already in New York, the feds must pull out all the stops to vanquish this dangerous virus as soon as possible,” said Schumer. “The feds should deploy all possible resources to prevent, contain and treat Zika virus abroad; expeditiously develop either a cure or medication to treat Zika virus; and declare a public health emergency. Together, this plan will help to beat back the Zika virus globally before future individuals, including pregnant women, are affected.”
First, Schumer is calling on the U.S. Agency for International Development to prioritize and increase its involvement in Zika-affected countries abroad in order to better prevent, contain and treat the virus. USAID is one of the lead government entities that works overseas to improve global health, help societies prevent and recover from conflicts, and more. Second, Schumer is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to focus resources to expeditiously develop a vaccine and to work alongside the private sector in doing so. There is currently no cure, treatment or vaccine available for Zika, which can be extremely serious for pregnant women because of possible birth defects—like microcephaly—linked to the virus.
Schumer said this plan, along with the WHO designation, would help better fight this virus abroad before it spreads further and brings more cases to the United States.
The threat is of great concern on the Rockaway Peninsula, an area surrounded by water in close proximity to JFK International Airport.
“Here in Queens, we’re no strangers to the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses and their effects,” state Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) said. “As the site of the nation’s first reported case of West Nile Virus, we know all too well the need for vigilance in the face of risks to public health. In light of the growing health emergency I urge our city and state Health departments to take every necessary measure to prevent the further spread of the virus and appropriately attend to vulnerable populations in the community.”
Last week Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio and the city’s Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett provided an update on the city’s response to the Zika virus outbreak.
“Though mosquitoes are not currently active in New York City, we have already started a comprehensive response to the Zika virus,” Palacio said. “We want to ensure all New Yorkers traveling to warmer climates are taking preventive measures, and we are prepared as mosquito season approaches.”
These measures include the use of repellent containing DEET and wearing protective clothing such as long sleeves, long pants and closed shoes. The DOH is also urging travelers to stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens, use bed-nets for sleeping, and eliminate standing water that collects in and around your residence.
“We strongly recommend that any pregnant women delay travel to the ares affected by the virus,” Bassett said. “And we urge any pregnant women returning from these areas to speak with their physician.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr