If you’re like most people, Zika virus may not have been on your radar last fall. One year later, though, after a large-scale outbreak and a link to devastating birth defects, Zika is of serious concern to many people across the globe.
Today, Zika is present in five dozen countries and territories, including the United States. To help respond to the devastating Zika outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stepped forward to play a leading role in prevention and response activities. In my role leading the independent nonprofit CDC Foundation, I am pleased to partner with philanthropic and private sector donors who want to help extend CDC’s lifesaving work, including in emergency responses like Zika.
According to CDC and other authorities, Zika virus presents a serious risk for pregnancies. This is an important discovery because a mosquito borne infection has never before been shown to cause a serious birth defect. We now know, however, that Zika infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly—a severe brain defect causing lifelong disability and up to $10 million in estimated healthcare costs per person. Babies exposed to Zika prenatally have also been born with other problems, including eye defects, hearing loss and impaired growth.
And Zika has been tied to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a sickness of the nervous system in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness, and sometimes, paralysis.
With Zika virus and pregnancy, there are three primary prevention strategies. One revolves around protecting pregnant women by eliminating mosquitos and mosquito bites. Another relates to protecting pregnant women from sexual transmission of Zika. An additional effective strategy to reduce Zika-related pregnancy complications is to prevent pregnancy, an option for women who choose to delay or avoid pregnancy during the outbreak.
Since February, when CDC elevated its emergency operations center to its highest level of response, CDC experts have been leading a number of high priority response efforts. Among these are tracking the spread of Zika virus, teaching healthcare providers how to identify Zika, studying links between Zika and birth defects, training disease detectives to report cases, and advising travelers and educating the public about Zika.
For our part, the CDC Foundation has worked with the philanthropic and private sectors to secure product donations and financial support to help advance CDC’s efforts when government funding has not been available or accessible in sufficient time to meet the need. Access to fast, flexible funding support is especially critical during an emergency response when every second counts. Much of our work has been aimed at supporting CDC’s efforts in hard-hit U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Thanks to our donors we provided support for a summit in April that brought together officials from local, state and federal jurisdictions, as well as non-governmental organizations, to help ensure a coordinated Zika response. In addition, we worked with donors to support communications in U.S. territories aimed at helping protect pregnant women from Zika infection as well as garnering product donations, such as mosquito repellent and condoms, for use in educational packets called Zika Prevention Kits. And our donors are continuing to help us provide access to a full range of free contraceptive options for women in Puerto Rico who make the decision to delay pregnancy during the Zika outbreak.
Looking ahead, as Zika evolves and spreads, the CDC Foundation is striving to help CDC meet additional urgent needs that require philanthropic and private sector support. One way we want to assist is by helping to build capacity and strengthening diagnostic capabilities around insecticide-resistance and developing innovative approaches to advance mosquito control.
While researchers are working on vaccine candidates to address Zika virus, it will likely be some time before a vaccine is tested, proven effective and available for general use. In the meantime, we all have a role to play to prevent the spread of Zika virus to protect pregnant women and their unborn babies. The CDC Foundation is pleased to work with donors and partners to support CDC’s vital response efforts.
Judy Monroe, M.D., FAAFP, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.