Senator Charles Schumer was in Buffalo on Monday, urging passage of emergency federal funding to counter the Zika virus. His visit came days after Niagara County announced its first confirmed case of the virus, which is linked to a serious birth defect.
Zika is linked to a medical condition called microcephaly, an undersized skull which prevents the brain from fully developing. Thousands of babies born in Brazil since last year have been diagnosed with the condition.
The Niagara County case, involving an individual who contracted the virus while traveling outside the US, is the second known case in Western New York. Erie County reported its first case back in February. That patient, according to health officials, also acquired the virus while abroad.
In all, at least 60 cases are confirmed in New York State and more than 800 cases nationwide. Approximately 90 pregnant women are among the numbers.
Health officials, however, say there is no cause for panic.
"We're just making sure that people understand that there's been no cases picked up within the United States," said Daniel Stapleton, Niagara County's Public Health Director.
However, Senator Charles Schumer wants to ensure that doctors and researchers have more support now to prepare a response to the virus. He said doctors had to rush to prepare their countermeasures during the last ebola outbreak. Providing $1.9 billion in emergency funds, he suggests, will give medical experts the tools and knowledge they need to prepare treatments, development prevention strategies and better inform the public about the risks.
"We don't want to have to tell women not to get pregnant for a year or two," Schumer said. "Imagine the disruption that would cause in young families' lives. Get this done, and nip it in the bud."
The virus, according to experts, can be transmitted by sexual contact with an infected person or by bites from two species of mosquito: Aedes aegypti and the Asian Tiger mosquito.
Stapleton told WBFO that Aedes aegypti is not found in this region but Schumer says the Asian Tiger mosquito has made its presence in Western New York. Among the prevention strategies that emergency funding would support, he said, is the development of sterile male mosquitoes.
Schumer said the emergency funding bill is high because a lot of work is involved, and there are hundreds of cases already identified in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. The proposed funding bill is lower, he noted, than the emergency funding approved to combat ebola.
Supporters of the bill who joined Schumer at his news conference outside Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo say the funds are needed to resolve many remaining unanswered questions.
"How long do you need to prevent from getting pregnant after getting infected? Right now, the recommendation is eight weeks but we really don't know," said Dr. Mark Hicar, a member of the UB medical school faculty and part of the Infectious Diseases staff at Kaleida Health. "With sexual transmission, it's recommended that you don't have unprotected sex after six months if you think you've been infected with Zika."
Stapleton recommended that high-risk prople including pregnant women avoid travel to nations known for the presence of Zika. But if it is necessary, take appropriate measures.
"Things like having insect repellent with DEET in it, making sure they have long sleeves and long pants, just avoiding mosquito bites as much as possible," Stapleton said.
Schumer expressed hope that lawmakers would pass legislation soon enough to have it on President Obama's desk for a signature by June 1.