Health Care

Governor’s budget proposes more scientists, research to fight Zika virus

In this August 2016 photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks to the media after meeting at the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce to discuss the threat of Zika. Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip, left, also attended the meeting. Scott’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year calls for the health department to hire more epidemiologists and invest more in infectious disease research to help combat the spread of Zika.
In this August 2016 photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks to the media after meeting at the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce to discuss the threat of Zika. Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip, left, also attended the meeting. Scott’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year calls for the health department to hire more epidemiologists and invest more in infectious disease research to help combat the spread of Zika. rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

With Zika expected to rebound as the weather warms and the rain returns, Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s $84 billion budget proposal recommends new funding for the health department to hire more scientists and conduct more research to combat spread of the virus.

Scott is recommending the state spend $2.9 billion to support the health department in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1 — an increase of $54.6 million over the current year. And though Scott has recommended that the number of employees at the health department remain at the current level of 14,065, he is calling for new funding for the agency to hire 21 epidemiologists and to invest more in infectious disease research to help fight Zika and other public health threats.

“Last year, we learned a lot from combating the Zika virus,” Scott said in a written statement announcing his budget proposal for the health department.

Scott’s budget proposal recommends the agency spend $1.9 million for epidemiology, disease surveillance and outbreak control measures. His budget, too, recommends spending an additional $2.2 million to establish a recurring source of funds to make Florida more competitive for peer-reviewed federal grants through the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists and public health officials have said that Zika is likely to remain in South Florida as long as the region continues to host travelers from areas where the virus is endemic. And though the number of locally acquired cases has dwindled with the winter, public health officials also have warned the virus is likely to rebound when temperatures rise and the rainy season kicks in.

Zika is spread primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, though the virus also can be transmitted through sexual contact and blood transfusions.

The virus poses the greatest threat to pregnant women and their unborn children because, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded, Zika can cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. Zika also can lead to eye, ear and neurological problems, including Guillain-Barré syndrome.

In 2016, Florida’s health department reported a total of 1,325 Zika cases, including 1,042 travel-related infections and 262 locally acquired ones. In an additional 21 cases, authorities couldn’t verify where the exposure took place.

Florida does not disclose whether pregnant women with Zika acquired the virus during travel or while in the state. But included among the totals for travel-related and locally acquired cases were 224 pregnant women with Zika in 2016.

For 2017, Florida has reported only four travel-related cases and no new local infections.

Daniel Chang: 305-376-2012, @dchangmiami

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