Money that has helped states with Zika tracking and education may come to an end by this summer, putting at risk efforts to better understand the mostly mosquito-borne virus and the devastating birth defects associated with it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told state health officials in a meeting last month that Zika funding is running out and that additional support should not be expected, according to a news report. An agency spokeswoman declined to confirm the report, saying in an email that the CDC did not yet have a budget for the next fiscal year and could not speculate on how funding for Zika might be affected.
Last year, Congress provided $1.1 billion to the CDC for Zika response and preparedness that was mostly passed on to local and state public health departments.
In California, the federal money helped to expand mosquito surveillance, tracking of birth defects related to Zika and programs to educate residents about the disease, among other efforts. The money has been distributed to states through different grants for different purposes. Between fiscal years 2016 and 2017, for example, the state of California received more than $1 million for the surveillance of Zika-related birth defects. Los Angeles County received another $1 million also to be used for the tracking of birth defects.
California Healthline requested comment from the state’s department of public health, but the agency did not provide information in time for publication.
Compared to other states, the Zika risk in California tends to be low. A federal study published last year showed that the West’s drier climate keeps in check the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes known to transmit the virus. Southern states are more humid and at higher risk.
As of April 21, 534 Zika virus infections have been reported in California since October 2015, according to state data. All of the infections were related to travel. Five babies have been born in California with Zika-related birth defects, state data also show.
According to the CDC, 58 babies in the U.S. were born with birth defects related to Zika as of April 11. Those defects include microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head and brain are smaller than normal, causing developmental delays and other problems.
The potential end of federal funds may affect states’ ability to track Zika-related birth defects, said Cindy Pellegrini, the senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the March of Dimes.
Before Zika emerged, microcephaly was so rare that most states did not track it. If states can no longer afford to do so, it will be difficult for health officials to know for certain which cases of birth defects were triggered by Zika, Pellegrini said.
The CDC and the March of Dimes recently launched Zika Care Connect, a website in which the public can search for providers who are qualified and willing to treat women and children with Zika. The site currently covers only 10 states, including California.
Mosquitoes that can transmit Zika to people have been detected in 11 counties in California: Fresno, Madera, Riverside, San Mateo, Tulare, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Imperial and San Diego.
San Diego County, which has reported 87 infections contracted abroad, last month reported its first child born with Zika-related microcephaly. San Diego County health officials said they are aware that Zika funding from the CDC was a one-time investment and used their share of funds to purchase lab equipment and hire temporary staff.
Since 2015, when the first case of Zika was confirmed in Brazil, the state of California established guidelines to handle the growing caseload of infections. Some of these include consulting with doctors on testing and interpreting results, educating the public on the risks of sexual transmission of Zika and monitoring pregnant women with suspected infections.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.