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States search for creative strategies to fight Zika on their own

Left without federal funds to fight a growing pile of Zika virus cases, states are turning to creative ways to prevent a full-fledged epidemic as summer continues to heat up.

Many of the ideas began this month, ranging from distributing “prevention kits” in south Florida to adopting unique approaches to Medicaid coverage in Texas and Delaware, to heightened surveillance and monitoring in other southern states. 

The states were left on their own in July after Congress left Washington without finalizing a deal to allocate Zika funds.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has so far taken the lead in doling out the little federal funds that were available, although the CDC is projected to run out of those funds in about two weeks. However, the agency has helped demonstrate effective strategies so that states can take over the efforts on their own.

Elizabeth Nash, a reproductive health policy analyst at the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks trends in reproductive rights from state to state, said the most common use for the CDC funds has been for monitoring programs, microcephaly testing, mosquito control and referral services.

Microcephaly is a birth defect that has been linked to the Zika virus, causing infants to be born with abnormally small heads and brains. Zika is carried by mosquitoes but can also be sexually transmitted.

“What we’re seeing is a patchwork of programs – there’s been some federal funds from the CDC, there’s been some state funds,” Nash told AMI Newswire. “There’s lots of different approaches, but this is the result of a lack of a national strategy.

“Things are to some degree focused on mosquito control, but there’s also an information gap. A lot of people still don’t know what they need to know about Zika. States were relying on Congress to take action, and they didn’t and then they left.”

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there were 650 cases of Zika in the U.S. and its territories, although the most recent number for the mainland U.S. is 13 in Florida.

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said her organization is frustrated not only with the impasse in Congress, but with state officials whom she said are blocking women from receiving reproductive care.

“The problem is not awareness, the problem is political,” she said. “Just think if you’ve been trying to get pregnant, and you finally become pregnant, and then you’re diagnosed with the Zika virus. What we need in these Gulf Coast states is an emergency public health response, so what you’re talking about is massive funding to care for these women.”

Specifically, in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has authorized the distribution of “prevention kits” in a Miami neighborhood where several Zika cases have been reported. The kits contain insect repellent, bed nets and condoms. In Texas and Delaware, officials last week began allowing Medicaid patients to use their coverage plans to buy insect repellent.

However, states haven’t helped their own cause over the years, as more and more legislatures have slashed funding to health agencies. According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials, median per capita emergency preparedness funding fell from $2.07 in 2010 to $1.15 in 2013.

Nash laments the trend, and also points out a gradual decrease in health care funding for women.

“We do not have a fully functioning safety net system in this country, and some states have seen a cut in Medicare, and those are the women and families who are the most vulnerable because they have the most limited access,” she said. “It’s really highlighting the lack of health care for so many people.”

In February, the Obama administration asked Congress for $1.9 billion to fight Zika, mostly through mosquito control and public outreach efforts. It then shifted nearly $600 million that had been set aside to fight the Ebola virus, and has been using that money so far.

This summer, the House voted to appropriate $1.1 billion, but the Senate did not approve it before Congress left in July for a seven-week recess.

Earlier this month, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell alerted Congress that federal officials are nearing the end of the Zika-fighting funds that had been set aside, and will be out of money by September.