Dallas County Judge Jenkins Says U.S. House's Zika Response Isn't Enough

This week, misaligned federal priorities and warnings at the Texas Capitol made it clear that the Zika virus is going to pose a very real threat to Texas during the 2016 mosquito season. As temperatures rise and mosquitoes gather, both the state and Dallas County are going to need money for education and protection efforts. After what's happened of the last few days, things aren't exactly looking up.

Tuesday, the U.S. Senate approved up to $1.1 billion to fight Zika — a mosquito-carried virus that can cause severe birth defects, like microcephaly. The House approved up to $622 million Wednesday, most of which would come from federal money set aside to fight Ebola during that virus' brief stateside appearance in 2014. Even if the chambers can reach a compromise and get Zika funding to President Obama's desk, either amount is a less than the $1.9 billion Obama is seeking.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Thursday that failing to fund the Zika fight appropriately puts the county at risk.

"While I appreciate Congress finally taking action to address the Zika virus, the funding provided in H.R. 5243 is woefully inadequate to support the response public health experts say is needed. We lost 20 Dallas County residents to the West Nile virus epidemic of 2012. Furthermore, of the 398 Dallas County cases of infection reported in that outbreak, 174 suffered serious neurological injury. Life-threatening mosquito borne illness outbreaks are not hypothetical scenarios for political debate in Texas; they are a very real threat requiring a fully funded aggressive approach," Jenkins said in a statement.

At the state level, Texas senators are hearing calls for a statewide mosquito control effort from people like Scott Lillibridge, Texas A&M Health Science Center epidemiology and biostatistics professor. Professor Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine underlined the risks of not getting things under control to the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.

"This is what I’ve been calling the virus from hell,” he said. “It’s really every parent’s nightmare. It’s a virus that can cause an explosive epidemic.” 

So far, there have been six Zika cases diagnosed in Dallas County. Five of those positive tests were of individuals who contracted the virus in areas of South and Central America that are part of the ongoing Zika epidemic in that region. The sixth caught the virus from an infected sexual partner recently returned from South America.

The primary know mosquito carrier of Zika, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is often found in North Texas, a University of Texas researcher told the Observer this spring, but is less prevalent the farther north one travels in North America. A second mosquito thought to be a possible host for Zika, the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) is seen in greater numbers in DFW.

Because the Aedes aegypti mosquito becomes less prevalent the farther north one goes, "by the time you get to North Texas, the chances of Zika establishing local cycles goes down — it goes down for the rest of the country. Now if both mosquito species are equally good at transmitting the virus, then the entire country and even Canada and much of Europe are at risk," the researcher, Sahotra Sarkar says.

Once mosquito-based Zika arrives in Texas, the state has to kill the mosquitoes however it can, John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said Tuesday, because Aedes mosquitoes derive almost all of their sustenance from human blood. All people can really do to defend themselves is wear insect repellent, stay indoors during mosquito activity periods and drain standing water.

The state of Texas, according to Hotez, can't wait for federal funding or federal help to come in.

"[The federal government is] not going to come down here into Texas and start flipping tires and putting up window screenings and doing insecticidal sprays," he said. "We’ve seen this before[with West Nile] and we’re going to be left on our own.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young