“I’m thinking of decamping to Maine for the rest of my pregnancy,” a pregnant patient told me last week. Her comment came days after the news of at least 17 confirmed cases of Zika in Florida. My patient worried that it was only a matter of time before the disease made its way to Virginia.
Experts say Zika will probably remain farther south, but I could not argue with my patient’s logic. The pregnant women I care for do everything they can to keep their unborn children healthy. They even forgo deli meats and soft cheeses to decrease the minute risk of contracting a rare bacteria.
I reassured my patient that mosquito season will probably pass before Zika gets to central Virginia. But her comment left me worrying about the women who don’t have the means or job flexibility to move to Maine for nine months.
For them, there are few options. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding mosquito bites by staying inside and wearing long sleeves and pants. That’s daunting, maybe impossible, in the humid, 90-degree summer of the South, particularly for women who work outside.
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Making sure all windows are screened or closed is another important preventive measure. For lower-income women who may not have air-conditioning, this recommendation can pose a challenge. Another option is insect-repellent. Although it is proved to be safe (and definitely safer than contracting Zika), many women still worry about the risks of using sprays or lotions containing DEET while pregnant.
The only real way to protect these women is through collective action. We need to improve our mosquito control, both in affected areas and in places where Zika might spread. We also need to increase our research into a vaccine or a cure. And we need to make it easy and cheap for people to get tested for the virus.
These efforts take money that, so far, our politicians seem reluctant to provide. This summer, the White House asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding, but Congress did not allocate resources before leaving for their summer recess.
Perhaps it was because of partisan bickering. Or maybe it is because poorer women, without air-conditioning or window screens, are disproportionately at risk. Or maybe Congress does not see this as a real threat.
Spending an afternoon in my office, listening to the fear in my pregnant patients’ questions, would dispel this myth.
There is much talk in Congress about the need to protect unborn children. If they are serious about this, they need to allot the money to achieve it. Obstetricians across America are doing our jobs by educating, listening to and reassuring our pregnant patients; it is time that Congress does theirs.
Emily Binkley Huffstetler is an OB/GYN in Charlottesville, Virginia.