Pierluisi Urges Federal Government to Lead Effort to Eradicate Zika, Chikungunya and Dengue in Puerto Rico and Other U.S. Jurisdictions
Washington, DC—Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi today called upon the federal government, working in conjunction with the scientific community, to take swift and proactive steps to eradicate or at least substantially reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Puerto Rico and other U.S. jurisdictions. The bites of female Aedes mosquitoes can transmit Zika, chikungunya, dengue and other viruses to humans.
“Although the American public is not generally aware of it, dengue and chikungunya have had a major impact in Puerto Rico, which is home to 3.5 million U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico has experienced epidemic dengue activity periodically since 1963. Even during “non-outbreak” years, between 3,000 and 9,000 suspected cases are typically reported on an annual basis. Major outbreaks occurred in 1994, 1998, 2007 and 2010. In 2010, there were over 21,000 suspected dengue cases in Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, and approximately 30 deaths related to dengue hemorrhagic fever. According to a study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the overall annual cost of preventing and treating dengue in Puerto Rico—borne by households, government, insurance companies, and employers—is $46.45 million. In 2014, chikungunya was first identified in Puerto Rico. That year, the Puerto Rico Department of Health confirmed about 4,000 chikungunya cases, including several deaths in which chikungunya may have been a contributing factor, and the number of actual cases was far higher. It seems like nearly everyone in Puerto Rico has either had chikungunya or knows a family member or friend who did. Finally, the first case of Zika—which has been linked to severe birth defects in children whose mothers are infected during pregnancy—was reported in Puerto Rico in December 2015, and there are already over 60 confirmed cases, including several pregnant women,” said Pierluisi.
“Mosquito-borne viruses like Zika, chikungunya and dengue have had profoundly negative effects in Puerto Rico, and such problems will persist unless an innovative new approach is taken. These viruses can cause serious, long-lasting health complications, and even fatalities; overwhelm hospitals; destabilize Medicaid, Medicare and the private health insurance system; and undermine economic growth because sick individuals miss work and tourism is adversely affected. While individuals can and should take commonsense steps to reduce the chances that they will be bit by a mosquito, this is not a comprehensive solution. The only real way to prevent the transmission of these viruses from mosquitoes to humans is through vector control, which involves sharply curtailing the number of Aedes mosquitoes,” added the Resident Commissioner.
In recent days, Pierluisi has been briefed by independent experts on promising technology—namely, the use of genetically-modified mosquitoes—that can suppress the Aedes mosquito and that has been deployed successfully in countries such as Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. The Resident Commissioner has asked these experts tough questions about the potential risks to public health and the environment and about the financial cost of deploying such technology, and has been encouraged by the responses. The World Health Organization recently launched a “Strategic Response Framework and Joint Operations Plan” to guide the international response to Zika, and urged the exploration of new forms of vector control.
“My goal as Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress is to ensure that senior federal officials—at the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—are approaching the problem of mosquito-borne viruses in the U.S. territory with a sense of urgency. Federal officials must examine, carefully but expeditiously, new technologies that could eradicate Zika, chikungunya and dengue in Puerto Rico and other U.S. jurisdictions, and then help fund the deployment of such technologies if necessary,” said Pierluisi.
“Mosquito-borne viruses are a severe and immediate threat to the health and safety of my constituents. Accordingly, I intend to do everything within my power to make certain that the federal government is devoting the time, energy and resources to this problem,” added the Resident Commissioner.
On February 22nd, the Obama administration submitted a formal request to Congress, asking for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to enhance its efforts to respond to the Zika virus, and Pierluisi strongly supports this request. The request includes $246 million in additional support for the Medicaid program in Puerto Rico and the other territories, which are severely underfunded by the federal government. This funding would be used to provide health services for low-income individuals on the island, including for pregnant women who have acquired, or are at risk of acquiring, Zika. The request also includes $225 million in funding, provided through the CDC, to support prevention and response efforts in Puerto Rico and the other territories, including vector control activities. Finally, the request includes additional funding for Puerto Rico’s community health centers, which provide care to many individuals and families throughout the island.
Separately, Pierluisi is also working with the federal government, the American Red Cross, private blood collection centers in Puerto Rico, and private industry to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of safe blood products available for hospital patients in the territory.