One of the major news stories of 2016 has become shadowed by the presidential election, but could be a major issue for president-elect Trump. Zika virus, which continues to be a public health crisis not just in the U.S., but abroad, will need to be on the president's radar, even if the public shifts its focus elsewhere. What will happen to Zika virus research under President Trump? So far, he has said little on the subject.
It's been almost a year since the U.S. was first warned about a potential Zika outbreak, and while there have been cases in several U.S. states and territories, Florida has made the news most frequently for its startling number: more than 700 at last tally by the CDC. That's including cases that were acquired out of state, but brought back with the potential to infect locals (there have been around 139 "locally acquired" cases in Florida).
Officials are in the process now of deciding if they have gained adequate control of the outbreak, and if it's still considered a crisis. One of the most pressing questions from the beginning has been federal funding towards research efforts and prevention, particularly after scientists were able to determine that Zika in pregnant women has the potential to cause serious birth defects.
The CDC has been diligently tracking the outbreak and its effects for the last year. But without funding for research and developing treatment and prevention, it's been difficult to control the spread. Calls to action by scientists, medical professionals, and the public have not necessarily been met by Congress, who only just voted to provide funding back in September. While the $1.1 billion they agreed to allot for Zika research and efforts will help, it came seven months after the outbreak started, and much damage has already been done. Some who have been working to combat the outbreak worry that it isn't enough: in fact, some experts think its merely half what the U.S. would need to stop Zika's spread, according to STAT News.
Ongoing government involvement will be necessary as the CDC and, in particular, Florida's government, attempts to prevent the spread of Zika while also assessing the challenges that remain for those who have been infected. As the U.S. is just months away from a handoff from President Obama's administration to Trump's, it's unclear what, if any, plans Trump has in place to continue to combat Zika on U.S. soil.
Trump has said before that at least in the case of Florida, he would defer to state government (specifically Gov. Rick Scott) when it comes to decision making. Adding to the challenge, if the WHO downgrades Zika's status from "public health emergency of international concern," many scientists are worried that they won't be able to get enough support to keep the virus at bay.
What further concerns many has less to do with Trump's non committal response to Zika, and more to do with his desire to reduce funding to reproductive health clinics and initiatives, and possibly even overturn Roe v. Wade, thus drastically cutting access to safe and legal abortions. As the CDC's deputy director, Dr. Anne Schuchat, told STAT News, Zika is a virus “that can cause irreversible, catastrophic problems when certain women in pregnancy are infected."
The group of birth defects associated with Zika are now being referred to as Congenital Zika Syndrome. The most well-known component of the syndrome, microcephaly, can actually be detected by ultrasound as early as 18 to 20 weeks gestation, although many factors influence the accuracy of the test, like the position of the fetus in utero and the severity of the birth defect. Still, for women who have been infected with Zika and are carrying fetuses with severe, life-threatening birth defects, less access to reproductive healthcare — including abortion — is deeply concerning.
Regarding abortion specifically, many states already ban abortions 24 weeks and later. Vice president-elect Mike Pence would like to see those bans appear earlier across the board, starting at 20 weeks gestation. For women infected with Zika, this would greatly limit their options considering they may not know whether they are carrying a fetus with Congenital Zika Syndrome until sometime in that 20- to 24-week window.
When Trump was asked about his plan for Zika back in August, the president-elect did applaud Florida's efforts, but did not make any statement regarding what he would contribute from Washington D.C. as president, according to ATTN:
I watch and I see what they're doing [in Florida] with the spraying and everything else, and I think [Gov. Rick Scott is] doing a fantastic job. And he's letting everyone know exactly what the problem is and how to get rid of it. He's going to have it under control. He probably already does.
The Obama Administration requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding from Congress to fight Zika back in February, but Congress didn't respond with its $1.1 billion offer for more than half a year. Whether Trump has any plans to request additional funding, or intentions to slash current funding, remains unknown. But, if he'd prefer to defer to Gov. Scott's opinion, he may want to read the letter Scott wrote to Congress over the summer, calling them out for their failure to act. The CDC's director, Tom Frieden, added his dismay, telling reporters during a press conference in May: “Three months in an epidemic is an eternity.”
For many infected with Zika, the effects will quite literally last a lifetime.