At a time in the calendar when the flu usually dominates our health news, this year we have a new scene stealer. The Zika virus.
Mosquito-borne, the Zika virus has grabbed international attention primarily because of its devastating effects on developing fetuses. An estimated 4,000 babies in Brazil alone are thought to have been afflicted with the Zika virus, which is suspected to cause microcephaly.
At the time of this writing, mosquitos carrying the Zika virus have not yet crossed the border into the United States. Cold comfort though when the infection has already been found in 21 countries in the Caribbean and North, Central and South America, and the World Health Organization predicts the virus will eventually spread to all but two countries (Canada and Chile) in the region.
Dealing with new and emerging infections is not unchartered territory for Texas hospitals. In 2014, Texas hospitals were at the epicenter of the Ebola virus in the U.S.
But Texas hospitals know that it is not enough just to react to known threats. Identifying potential dangers and developing response plans before a crisis occurs is part of hospitals’ vital role as the first line of defense against threats to the public’s health. This is particularly true with respect to infectious diseases because viruses do not respect geographic boundaries.
Just as roads and bridges are the essential physical infrastructure for a thriving economy, hospitals are the essential infrastructure for safeguarding the public’s health.
Yet, funding to support such an infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the need. Federal and state funding cuts have left Texas hospitals with fewer resources to dedicate to emergency preparedness and public health activities.
The emergence of Ebola in the U.S. and the imminent threat of the Zika virus are known. We can plan and prepare accordingly. But a clear and present danger exists from what is not known. Now is not the time to ask hospitals to be on the front lines of protecting the nation’s public health without equipping them with the necessary resources.