This past Monday, May 23rd, U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner held a joint press conference along with other federal and local officials, at the St. Joseph Medical Center, to address specific concerns regarding environmental conditions that may be conducive to the breeding of Zika Virus carrying mosquitoes, such as household items (e.g. furniture, tires, appliances, grills) on the side of roads, in vacant lots, and yards. The press conference covered the topic of why household items such as buckets, cans, houseplants, grills and other items are breeding sources for mosquitoes, and should be secured so as not to become a means of spreading the Zika Virus.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee and Mayor Turner were joined by Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean, National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology, Baylor College of Medicine; Dr. Raouf Arafat, Office of Surveillance and Public Health Preparedness, who represented the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services; Dr. Mustapha Debboun, Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services; Dr. Julie Graves, Regional Medical Director, Health Services Region 6/5 South, Texas Department of State Health Services; along with other Federal, State, and Local government agencies with responsibilities for responding to Zika Virus.
The most important takeaways from the press conference were the plans that each entity has put in place to address the 2016 Mosquito Season, along with where they are implementing those plans, and what they may need to meet their objectives.
Last week Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee offered an amendment to H.R. 4909, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, that expresses the Sense of Congress regarding the importance of increasing the effectiveness of U.S. Northern Command (‘NORTHCOM’) in fulfilling the critical mission of protecting the U.S. homeland in event of war and to provide support to local, state, and federal authorities in times of national emergency. Specifically, the NORTHCOM amendment directs that the U.S. North American Command:
- Develop and has in place a leadership strategy that will strengthen and foster necessary institutional and interpersonal relationships with state and local governments; and
- Develop an instructional program to train key personnel how to lead effectively in the event of a disaster when they do not have command authority to dictate actions.
That leadership is required now to respond to the threat posed to the Greater Houston area by the Zika Virus.
In 2003, Houston experienced its first dengue fever outbreak in many decades, and in recent history to date Houston is the only major city in the continental United States to have experienced a dengue outbreak. Because the Texas Gulf Coast represents the confluence of extreme poverty (and with it the environmental degradation and lack of window screens), warm climate, and the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito (the mosquito vector now responsible for Zika transmission in Latin America) whereas outside of the Gulf Coast region these factors are not present, there is a high likelihood that the Zika or Chikungunya transmission could begin in the Greater Houston area in the coming weeks as the temperatures warm and Aedes aegypti mosquito numbers increase.
For this reason, a threat exists to the population in and around the Greater Houston area.
On February 3rd, President Obama took decisive action to address the public health and safety threat to our nation and our Western Hemisphere neighbors posed by the Zika virus by requesting the Congress to appropriate $1.9 billion in FY2016 supplemental appropriations to respond to the domestic and global outbreak of the Zika virus.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Senior Member of the House Homeland Security Committee, held another press conference immediately after, asking the leadership of both the House and the Senate to approve the President’s request of $1.9 billion to respond to the domestic and global outbreak of the Zika virus.
Since then, some of the most pressing concerns have started to unfold, and Congress has yet to act on President Obama’s request for $1.9 Billion in Zika Virus Emergency Response Funding.
On March 10th, the first Congressional event was held in the 18th Congressional District to raise public awareness regarding the Zika Virus and to ascertain the needs of local and state agencies that would be responsible for responding to the threat.
The CDC reported on May 20th, that it has confirmed cases of the Zika Virus which includes 279 pregnant women in the United States or U.S. Territories. This number is double the number of cases reported over a week ago. The CDC is reporting all pregnant women who have ‘any laboratory evidence’ of possible infection, no matter what. The CDC made the change after seeing reports of asymptomatic pregnant women—women with no symptoms who delivered children with known Zika Virus birth defects. These are sobering and troubling numbers this early in our mosquito season. These cases of Zika Virus include both travel related and those that were contracted from mosquito bites.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee is calling on Congress to immediately approve those funds of $1.9 billion now with at least $100 million to be directed to the most at-risk areas along the mainland United States’ Gulf Coast, particularly Texas and Louisiana.
“I am proposing that the $100 million in dedicated funding go to support local governments in conducting massive environmental cleanup efforts to remove items that would support mosquitoes from breeding,” said Congresswoman Jackson Lee. “The dedicated funding requested would build upon ongoing preparedness efforts and provide funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to support immediate prevention, response, and mitigation activities. In particular, the requested dedicated funding will help combat the spread of the Zika virus, accelerate research, development, and procurement of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics; provide emergency assistance to states and localities expected to be disproportionately impacted, particularly Texas, my home city of Houston, and Puerto Rico; provide additional Federal Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico and other U.S. Territories to provide health services for pregnant women at risk of infection or diagnosed with Zika virus, and for children with microcephaly, and for other health care costs; and to enhance the ability of affected locales to better combat mosquitoes and control transmission.”
Recently the 18th Congressional District held a Planning Session in Houston regarding importance on combatting this virus. The Gulf Coast area and Houston are on the front lines of stopping this virus. The Zika virus poses a particularly serious threat to pregnant women and girls. Public health experts expect the Zika Virus to strike the United States mainland in the summer months and continue well into the fall. Texas summers are long and very hot, and Houston is expected to be the epicenter of a Zika virus outbreak in the United States. That is why it is critically important that resources be in place immediately to implement community based mosquito control and abatement programs.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee is asking that the following directives happen:
- A national task force to discuss the Zika virus;
- Public service messages explaining what the word DEET means and why it is important to protect yourself with insect repellant;
- Posters in all public hospitals highlighting the dangers of the Zika virus and how one can protect themselves from the Zika virus;
- A MAJOR briefing in Houston with officials from the CDC regarding the Zika virus;
- A Houston Public service campaign to inform the community about traveling to infected regions around the world; and
- We must secure public and private funds to cleanup tires and other debris where mosquitos may congregate.
The Forward Times will keep you posted on any new information that comes forth concerning the Zika Virus and any updates to ensure our readers are adequately equipped and prepared.