Rep. Jim Costa joined local mosquito control and health officials at a Clovis park Tuesday to talk about strategies for fighting Zika and the need for money to keep the efforts going.
The Obama administration has asked for $1.9 billion in emergency supplemental funding for development of a Zika vaccine, but the request has become tangled in politics, Costa said.
Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell has “repurposed” about $80 million for Zika research from other agencies, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is enmeshed in its own battle against opioid addiction.
Some of the transferred money has trickled down to the county level – but central San Joaquin Valley vector and health officials told Costa it’s too little.
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“We don’t have the funds to go out there and implement a complete eradication effort,” said Steve Mulligan, manager of the Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District that covers Clovis.
The district got about $35,000 from the federal government to buy insecticides to kill mosquitoes, Mulligan said. He’s setting aside some of that in case Clovis should have a reported local transmission of Zika virus.
We don’t have the funds to go out there and implement a complete eradication effort.
Steve Mulligan, Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District
The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry the Zika virus, has been found in areas of Clovis and Fresno since 2013.
So far, no one in the Valley or in California has been bitten by a locally infected mosquito, but health officials are concerned about the potential for the virus to spread from people who are infected during travel and return home to be bitten by mosquitoes here. The infection can cause microcephaly, a serious birth defect, and has been associated with neurological problems in adults.
Among Valley counties, Fresno has had a case of travel-associated Zika, Tulare has had two infections acquired during travel outside the United States, and Merced has had three travel-associated infections. California has had 153 travel-associated infections as of Friday. The Aedes aegypti mosquito is widespread in portions of southern Mexico and in Central and South American countries that are travel destinations for many Valley residents.
The Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District has been waging war against the Aedes aegypti mosquito for the past three years and this year has been releasing male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a bacterium that results in mated female mosquitoes laying eggs that do not hatch.
The experimental program in a southeast Clovis neighborhood has not been funded by the federal government. It’s a cooperation between the district, the University of Kentucky, MosquitoMate, Inc., and the University of California Mosquito Research Laboratory in Parlier.
The last batch of bacteria-tainted male mosquitoes will be released in September, and it will be a couple more months before researchers know if they have reduced the biting mosquito population, but they’re hopeful.
The research needs to continue, said Anthony Cornel, an entomologist at the UC Mosquito Research Laboratory. “We must do what we can to reduce their numbers as quickly as possible.”
Much remains to be learned about the Aedes aegypti mosquito, he said, including why the tropical insect has flourished in this hotter and harsher environment and why it has become resistant to most insecticides. “Funding is absolutely critical for us to investigate and understand the biology of this mosquito.”
This is a health emergency, and we should treat it as such.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno
And Mulligan said he needs money for more surveillance work to find out just how widespread the Aedes aegypti has become in the Valley. “We’re really going to need to have ongoing funding for research,” he said.
Money for health education and prevention also is stretched. California got $409,000 in federal money to spread among 10 county public health departments. Fresno and Madera counties each got $40,000.
“It’s simply not enough,” said Van Do-Reynoso, public health director for Madera County.
Costa told the vector control and health officials he understands their frustration.
“Clearly we need to have a long-term plan in place,” he said. “This is a health emergency, and we should treat it as such.”