LA's health chief calls on Congress to approve more Zika funds

Louisiana's health chief calls on Congress to approve more funds to fight Zika

Louisiana's health chief said while spraying for mosquitoes has intensified around the state because of the Zika virus, more resources are needed and Congress needs to step up and approve more funding.

The southern climate tends to draw people outdoors. Unfortunately, weather conditions are also good for a certain insect.

"The Aedes aegypti mosquito is the vector for Zika and that mosquito only lives largely around the area of Lake Pontchartrain, mostly the south shore, so we have a lot of the Zika mosquitoes who are endemic to this area," said Dr. Rebekah Gee, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Gee said to date, Louisiana has 27 confirmed Zika cases. The majority are in the New Orleans area.

"So because of those mosquitoes being here and because of travelers coming here, this area is higher risk," Gee said.

The good news is that so far none of Louisiana's Zika cases are linked to local transmission, meaning a local mosquito carrying the virus bit someone and they became infected.

"We have no Zika cases that are local transmission. The only part of the U.S. that has had that is Florida," said Gee.

But Louisiana's luck is expected to run out.

"I think we could have local transmission at any point in time right now," said Dawn Wesson, an associate professor in Tulane's School of Tropical Medicine.

Given all of the humidity and high temperatures, standing water is a perpetual problem in Louisiana after heavy rain.

"Water stays longer than it would in a dryer environment, that's for sure," said Wesson.

Wesson is involved in Zika research.

"The mosquito populations that transmit Zika are at their peak right now, certainly the weather is conducive, all the recent rain we've had," said Wesson.

Despite the state's ongoing budget crisis and before the recent flooding hit some areas of the state, Gee said the state set aside a few million dollars to combat Zika. But clearly that is not enough, especially if there were to be a major outbreak of the virus in the state.

"If we do have an uptick in cases right now we don't have enough laboratory space or personnel who have the knowledge to do the test, to do the number of tests you need to make sure that every pregnant women is tested twice in her pregnancy, which would be the recommendation if there were local transmissions of Zika here," said Gee.

Complications in pregnant women can be very harsh.

"The long-term horrible side effects in the babies who are born with Zika are unacceptable," said Gee.

Brain and head abnormalities can occur.

"What's the most concerning symptom of Zika is when pregnant women get Zika and once their baby gets infected with Zika, if that infant has symptoms, those symptoms are life-long - the small head, the smaller brain," Gee said.

She and many others call on Congress to do more in terms of funding the fight.

"You really need a Zika vaccine," she said.

"Anything we can get in terms of support from Congress to help that process move along I think is very important," said Wesson.

Gee said the state received $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control and notes that because of the recent flooding, additional federal dollars are expected.

"Those are FEMA dollars, will go towards increased spraying in the federal declaration areas, so those areas will be able to get more monies," said Gee.

Prevention will go a long way in staying safe.

"Particularly if you're pregnant, wear long clothes, wear protective DEET, mosquito repellent. We actually cover the mosquito repellent with Medicaid right now," Gee said.

Gee and Wesson said Zika could be a problem for three to four years.

There has been one case of sexually transmitted Zika in Louisiana.

Copyright 2016 WVUE. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2016 WVUE. All rights reserved.