F or the first time in history, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel alert within the United States — for southern Florida, where the Zika virus is being spread by mosquito bites. It’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1950s, when tens of thousands of Americans, mostly children, were barred from shuttered swimming pools and movie theaters across the country by epidemics of polio, and parents anxiously kept their children indoors and close to home.
As a leader in maternal and infant health, the March of Dimes is deeply concerned about the risk of Zika virus to pregnant women and babies. Zika infection during pregnancy causes a severe birth defect called microcephaly, in which a baby’s head and brain are small and underdeveloped.
This birth defect has been linked to seizures, developmental delays and intellectual disabilities, as well as other lifelong health consequences. Zika also may be linked to miscarriage and stillbirth.
Here in Hawaii, 11 confirmed Zika cases have been diagnosed in people who caught it during travel to other countries. If the virus is allowed to spread unchecked throughout our country, it could infect untold numbers of pregnant women, causing thousands of grievous birth defects.
We know what must be done. Our nation must accelerate education and prevention efforts to stop Zika from gaining a foothold in the U.S. All that’s lacking is the political will.
The New York Times has reported that 16 babies in the continental U.S. have been born with Zika symptoms. Under these circumstances, the birth of even one infant with preventable brain damage is unconscionable.
The U.S. Congress should act immediately to provide emergency funding to combat the Zika virus. If they don’t, our children could suffer devastating consequences. The time to act is now, and the window of opportunity is swiftly closing.
Individuals, families and communities should know what steps they can take to protect themselves against Zika virus infection. ZAP Zika stands for Zika Awareness and Prevention. Spread these five tips to ZAP Zika (#ZAPzika):
1. Use spray, keep mosquitoes away: make sure insect repellant is EPA- registered.
2. Say you will, embrace the chill: use air conditioning and window screens if possible.
3. If it’s wet, it’s a threat: remove still water.
4. Get protected, not infected: wear clothes to prevent bites. Use a condom to prevent sexual transmission.
5. If you suspect, then connect: call your health care provider if you are at risk of infection.
We ask everyone in our community to join the March of Dimes and a coalition of more than 80 organizations in seeking thousands of signatures for an online petition to demand that Congress act immediately to pass a bipartisan funding package to combat Zika virus.
Thousands of concerned families have already joined our call to action and signed the petition. It’s available at www.marchofdimes.org/zikapetition Join us in taking action so that one day Zika virus, like polio, will be only a distant, terrible memory.
Howard Lee is chairman of the board of March of Dimes Hawaii.