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Combatting the Zika Virus and Improving Our Health Care Infrastructure

February 24, 2016

The World Health Organization has declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has affected between 440,000 and 1.3 million people in Brazil, a global public health emergency. Although local transmission of Zika has not been documented in the continental United States, the virus has been reported in returning travelers, and locally transmitted cases have been referred to the Pan American Health Organization from Puerto Rico and 36 other countries or territories in the Americas. In light of the recent outbreaks, the number of travelers visiting or returning to the United States with the Zika virus is likely to increase.

The Zika virus is transmitted primarily by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are found in parts of the southeastern United States and in some counties in California. Further, two species of mosquitos which inhabit the United States (and are viable in climates up to Maryland) are capable of spreading the Zika virus. As the number of cases has burgeoned among the populations in the Americas over the past nine months, the rate of children born with abnormally small heads (microcephaly) and concomitant brain compression in Brazil has grown from 147 cases in 2014 to more than 5,000 today (an increase of over 3,000%). This has raised a high level of suspicion that microcephaly is associated with the Zika virus.

Short-term strategies for controlling the spread of the virus include killing mosquitoes, cleaning the habitats where they breed, encouraging women of child-bearing age to consider the advisability of becoming pregnant, and restricting travel to countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. In the interim, we need an international focus on data tracking and ongoing public education, and a long-term initiative for research, treatment and possible vaccine development.

Women in countries with little to no reproductive rights are being told not to get pregnant for two years. In countries like El Salvador, less than 10% of the population uses birth control, which is rare and expensive. Abortion laws are so strict that women can be jailed for having a miscarriage. These same countries are placing the burden on women who have very little choice for protection against pregnancy. This is a human rights issue and we must combat it.

The knowledge and capacity of the U.S. public and private health care systems to address infectious diseases were brought under the microscope with the relatively few active cases of Ebola brought into the country in 2014. Infection of two nurses caring for an Ebola patient in Texas shows the inadequate worker protections in a privatized health care system driven by profit. Funding to improve infrastructure preparedness capacity remains woefully inadequate, and austerity budgets have weakened the ability of universities and research institutions to develop vaccines and preventive measures to combat such emerging public health threats as Zika, Ebola, dengue fever and chikungunya. The Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID have requested $1.9 billion in additional funding from Congress for education, research, development and vector control efforts. Nevertheless, preparations for full protective measures and monitoring should begin immediately, including implementation of mechanical disinsection devices that help stop the spread of mosquitoes through aviation without utilizing harmful pesticides.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the AFL-CIO’s affiliates trained and prepared hundreds of health care members in best practices in infection control, made site visits, and created an abundance of online educational resource materials to enhance knowledge and decrease fear. For example, significant pressure was applied in California, which created the only enforceable interim Ebola guidance in the United States. And in states like Oregon, work was done with public health agencies, the governor and other stakeholders to develop a plan and protocol for addressing Ebola in communities and hospitals. 

Globally, the labor movement is on the front line of the response to Zika and other public health emergencies; from nurses and health care professionals to Flight Attendants and other aviation and transportation workers, as well as public-sector workers charged with maintaining clean water and sanitation.

The AFL-CIO is prepared to work with our affiliates to immediately develop and disseminate educational resources that outline the facts, detail the knowledge gaps and link members to the most up-to-date materials from the CDC, the World Health Organization, research experts and others. Where the CDC gives inadequate guidance, the AFL-CIO will follow the precautionary principle to best protect workers’ and the public’s health.

In addressing Zika, the AFL-CIO will continue to collaborate with local and federal government officials, hospital management and health care professionals in the development of surveillance, education and policy at the local, state and federal levels.

The AFL-CIO and our affiliates will press for a strong OSHA infectious disease standard to ensure workers are protected so they can provide vital services to protect the public from these deadly diseases, and provide needed treatment and care. 

The AFL-CIO will advocate for long-term improvement in our overall health care infrastructure to address emerging national and transnational medical emergencies. This improvement must include adequate staffing, the removal of profit from the health care system, a robust and well-funded public health system with strong data tracking, as well as significant resources for university and research institutions to promote vaccine and rapid diagnostic test development ahead of emergencies.

The AFL-CIO will encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation to accelerate testing and validation of safe, mechanical (nonchemical) means for preventing the transport of disease-carrying mosquitoes on commercial airplanes.

The AFL-CIO stands prepared to work with the global labor movement to combat the Zika virus, address crucial health needs and reverse years of neglect and underdevelopment in health care infrastructure.

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