“I’m thinking of decamping to Maine for the rest of my pregnancy,” a pregnant patient told me last week. Her comment came days after the news of at least 17 confirmed cases of Zika in Florida. My patient worried that it was only a matter of time before the disease made its way to Virginia.
Experts say Zika will probably remain farther south, but I could not argue with my patient’s logic. The pregnant women I care for do everything in their power to keep their unborn children healthy. They give up alcohol, quit smoking and see their doctor regularly. They even forgo deli meats and soft cheeses to decrease the minute risk of contracting a rare bacteria.
I reassured my patient that mosquito season will probably pass before Zika makes its way to central Virginia. But her comment left me worrying about the women who don’t have the means or job flexibility to move to Maine for nine months. More than 40 percent of U.S. births are funded by Medicaid; about 21 percent of children born here grow up in poverty.
For them, there are few options. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding mosquito bites by staying inside and wearing long sleeves and pants. That’s a daunting, maybe impossible task, in the humid, 90-degree summer of the South, particularly for women who work outside.
Making sure all windows are screened or closed is another important preventive measure. For lower-income women who may not have air-conditioning, this recommendation can pose a challenge. Another option is insect-repellent. Although it is proved to be safe (and definitely safer than contracting Zika), many women still worry about the risks of using sprays or lotions containing DEET while pregnant.
The only real way to protect these women is through collective action. We need to improve our mosquito control, both in affected areas and in places where Zika might spread. We also need to increase our research into a vaccine or a cure. And we need to make it easy and cheap for people to get tested for the virus.
These efforts take money that, so far, our politicians seem reluctant to provide. This summer, the White House asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding. And though Zika affects Democrats and Republicans, Congress did not allocate resources to combat this public health emergency before leaving for their summer recess.
Perhaps it was partisan bickering that prevented a spending bill being passed. Or maybe it is because poorer women, those without air-conditioning or window screens, are disproportionately at risk. Or maybe Congress does not see this threat as a real one.
Spending an afternoon in my office, listening to the fear in my pregnant patient’s questions, would dispel this myth.
There is much talk in Congress about the need to protect unborn children. If it is serious about this priority, it needs to allot the money to achieve it. Obstetricians across America are doing our jobs by educating, listening to and reassuring our pregnant patients; it is time that Congress does its job.
Emily Binkley Huffstetler is an obstetrician-gynecologist in Charlottesville, Virginia.