As park and recreation agencies around the country gear up for a busy summer of outdoor fun, NRPA is working to make sure members are prepared to combat the spread of Zika virus from mosquito bites. Zika began spreading in Brazil last year, and since then the virus has migrated throughout the Americas at a rapid clip.
Anyone who has spent an afternoon at the pool or around a barbeque grill knows that summer months are high-season for mosquito bites. And now, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in the New England Journal of Medicine titled, “Zika Virus Associated with Microcephaly," has finally confirmed what Americans have been talking about for months around watercoolers, dinner tables and after the nightly news: the glaringly obvious connection between mosquito bites, birth defects and Zika.
While there are no confirmed cases of Zika transmissions from mosquito bites in the continental U.S., there have been at least 300 instances of Americans contracting Zika abroad, according to the CDC. However, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa already have confirmed cases of Zika transmission from mosquito bites. Our work, whether simply telling pregnant women, their partners and health professionals in our communities about the dangers of Zika, or working with local departments of public works to maintain mosquito control plans at open fields and parks, will be integral to prevent the spread of Zika. As some of the largest public landholders in southern and eastern states, and because of our presence in every congressional district and almost every county in America, park and recreation agencies are uniquely positioned to partner with state, county and city governments, and local boards of health, to disseminate best practices throughout the communities we serve.
In response to the looming international threat of Zika, the CDC has published a litany of best practices for public agencies and individuals to prevent mosquito bites, protect pregnant women travelling abroad and help state and local officials improve Zika preparedness by addressing the urgent risks that Zika poses to pregnant women. By improving our understanding of the relationship between the virus and the birth defects it causes, the CDC’s study will make park and recreation agencies’ work as local public health messengers easier. The CDC’s research has given the public health community additional information about preventative measures, including the development of a Zika vaccine and better diagnostic tools to determine whether someone is infected with the virus.
Despite the study’s ground-breaking findings and CDC’s best efforts to coordinate an international response to the virus, we’re still fighting the war against Zika with one hand tied behind our back. Dedicated and consistent funding from the federal government is needed to fight this war. Yet, despite the clear and evident threat that Zika poses and broad public support for taking action to stop the spread of Zika, Congress still continues to drag its feet when it comes to funding the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request for Zika-related initiatives. After running into legislative brick walls at every turn, the Obama administration recently took action and transferred $500 million that was set aside to deal with the lingering 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa to fund a Zika response. While $500 million isn’t enough for a comprehensive response, this temporary funding will help jumpstart and expand state and local mosquito control programs, speed up the development of a Zika vaccine, educate women and health providers about the dangers of Zika and help Zika-affected countries slow the spread of the virus.
Park and recreation agencies, and the broader public health community, need Congress to be a dependable and reliable partner— not an obstacle — in our efforts to better serve our communities. That starts with properly funding public health, giving the CDC the tools it needs to study and eradicate Zika and making the virus a clear priority until the threat to pregnant women disappears.
Oliver Spurgeon III is NRPA’s Manager of Government Affairs.