The federal government is requesting $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress, hoping to fund measures to combat the Zika virus in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
The Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes and intimate contact with infected individuals, causes mild flu-like symptoms including joint pain, fevers, rashes, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness may last for a few days or as much as a couple of weeks. The more serious aspect of the virus is that it can cause birth defects if it is contracted by a pregnant woman.
The main concern for pregnant women is microcephaly, a condition in which the baby’s brain does not develop normally before birth. This is an extremely serious condition, and it has been associated with the Zika virus among pregnant women. It is not yet known whether catching the Zika virus increases the chances of microcephaly or other birth defects in later pregnancies.
There has also been at least one case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes temporary paralysis, reported in conjunction with the Zika virus.
Puerto Rico has had 9 confirmed cases of Zika, 8 of which were locally contracted. Florida has also had 9 confirmed cases and Texas has had 8, while nine other states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia have had at least one. All the cases on the mainland U.S. have been travel-related.
The funds request asks for $250 million to add to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) this year, to provide services for pregnant women who contract Zika, and for the additional costs associated with birth defects including microcephaly in infants born to these women. Since Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding is capped, it is difficult for Puerto Rico to respond to emergency health care needs.
The governor of Puerto Rico recently declared a State of Emergency because of the Zika virus.
Coping with new health care challenges is particularly difficult for Puerto Rico, where the current debt crisis is creating severe financial limitations for the government and Medicare and Medicaid funding is already restricted compared to the funding available in the States. Puerto Rico has also been suffering from a shortage of doctors for some time, further exacerbating the problem.
What’s more, the Center for Disease Control’s travel advisories could affect Puerto Rico’s tourist industry, adding to the financial challenges faced by the territory.