BY DERREK ASBERRY and EMMA DUMAIN
Palmetto State experts said they don’t want to speculate on whether residents are walking around with the Zika virus since there have been no reported cases as of Friday. But they are certain that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will eventually start reporting confirmed cases in this state.
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Barack Obama’s administration is continuing to impress upon Congress the dangers of not passing its $1.89 billion request for emergency funding.
Top officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health warned last week that the start of mosquito season will likely lead to local transmission in the United States. So far, all of the confirmed cases are travelers bringing the virus back from other countries and U.S. territories.
The CDC also confirmed last week that Zika is definitely linked to mothers giving birth to babies born with smaller heads, or microcephaly.
Despite the warnings, the Republican-controlled Congress has not yet heeded experts’ opinion that the virus is deeply serious and has the very real potential to soon be a problem in lawmakers’ own backyards.
South Carolina is still just one of nine states, and the only state in the Southeast, with no confirmed Zika cases, even though the state is home to the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes — the two carriers of the virus.
Nearby, Georgia has 11 confirmed cases and North Carolina has nine, according to a Wednesday update from the CDC.
With a total of 41 states confirming 358 positive cases, and numbers climbing in Puerto Rico to 445 cases, one expert believes it’s “only a matter of time” before South Carolina confirms its first case.
“We know it’s coming. It’s just a matter of when,” said Dr. Robert Ball, a health professor at the College of Charleston and at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Ball went on to applaud DHEC, among others, for meeting the issue head on across the state.
Robert Yanity, a spokesman with the state agency, said DHEC has been routinely providing updates to health care providers, local mosquito-control programs and the general public since February.
DHEC has put together a Zika Task Force that will offer technical assistance and help connect local governments and communities with resources to combat Zika.
The agency also is working with the Hospital Association and the Municipal Association, among others.
“DHEC has also advised local governments to take action to protect communities from mosquito-borne illnesses,” Yanity said in an email.
Even as the state increases efforts to fight Zika, Ball said a large part of the solution has to come from Washington.
“I believe Obama’s ($1.89 billion) request is appropriate and should be added to the reallocating of Ebola funding to Zika funding,” he said.
The Obama administration recently shifted nearly $600 million from the Ebola-prevention fund toward efforts to combat Zika. Even Republicans in Congress praised the measure, though they are still not heeding Obama or health care experts on approving the $1.89 billion measure.
Instead, the House on Tuesday passed a bill that would add Zika to a Food and Drug Administration “priority review voucher program,” providing an incentive for companies to work toward treatments and vaccines for the virus.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. applauded the bill in a statement. In a follow-up interview with The Post and Courier, Sanford said “the devil will be in the details” of whether he could support an emergency funding bill.
Other members of the S.C. congressional delegation were noncommittal on where they stood on the issue of Zika funding and whether they would vote for the $1.89 billion request should they be presented with the option.
“I think we’re going through the normal process of deliberations, to see what resources are necessary and how do you control and prevent,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who as a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee recently questioned public health officials on their specific efforts to handle a possible outbreak in the Palmetto State.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s only Democrat in Congress and his party’s third most senior member in the U.S. House, could only shrug.
“When you’ve got a group of people who don’t believe in science, it’s not a surprise,” Clyburn said of the standstill.
Beyond the confirmed impacts that Zika can have to pregnant women, there also is speculation on what impacts the disease could have on population growth.
The disease can also be sexually transmitted and, as a result, the CDC is advising those who are sexually active to use protection.
Kristin Bietsch, a research associate with the Population Reference Bureau, said a large-scale decision among women to not give birth could result in one of two things: Women delaying having children, which would lead to an increase when they decide to catch up, or omitting births, leading to smaller families.
“I’m very interested in seeing if the number of pregnancies drops and what impact that would have,” Bietsch said. “But that obviously depends on the extent of the Zika outbreak and it’s hard to say because we’re still in the early stages.”
Even with all of the concerns over Zika, Ball reasserted several points, including that Zika usually results in a benign illness within the immune system that triggers recovery.
Deaths from Zika are extremely rare and often occur due to underlying, severe conditions like cancer or heart disease.
Those preexisting conditions can be enhanced by Zika, but more than likely, it’s not the direct cause of a death,” Ball said.