A panel of nearly three dozen experts convened Monday at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in a fact-finding effort to understand the financial and human toll of Zika virus infections in the continental United States.
An economic model done recently by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that the cost of medical care and lost productivity from Zika in six southern U.S. states could surpass $2 billion—and that's if only 2 percent of the population in the region becomes infected.
The expert panel was convened by Sen. Ben Cardin on the heels of a Congressional debate over $1.9 billion in emergency funding requested for domestic and international response to the mosquito-borne virus.
Zika, linked to devastating birth defects and fetal death if pregnant women become infected, has been spreading rapidly in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Mosquitoes aren't yet spreading Zika in the continental U.S., but experts predict small outbreaks as the weather warms, and there have been more than 540 travel-associated cases in the U.S.
"This should not be viewed as a cost but as an investment," Bruce Y. Lee, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School who did the modeling, told the The Baltimore Sun.
Added Cardin: "We can't shortchange these efforts. We need funding at the level the experts tell us is needed. As we learned, the financial costs will add up, and more importantly, so will the human costs."
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Delayed federal funding also hurts efforts by university and government researchers to develop an accurate rapid test that could be done using a drop of blood in doctors' offices to quickly determine who is infected and at risk for complications. For now, Americans who have traveled to an affected country, with or without symptoms, must be tested in a state-run or CDC lab.
Because of trouble distinguishing Zika from similar viruses such as dengue, many women must be tested multiple times, increasing costs and "causing a great deal of anxiety," said Dr. Christopher Harman, chair of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Vaccine experts from both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, as well as others around the country in public and private labs, are working on a vaccine that could prevent the disease in pregnant women and those of child-bearing years.
Safety trials of vaccine candidates could begin by fall, said Dr. Anna P. Durbin, associate professor in the Hopkins Bloomberg School's Center for Immunization Research. Funding for larger trials testing the efficacy of any vaccine could be at risk without more dollars, she said.