Tish James: No One Is Focusing on Spread of Zika Through Sexual Transmission

Public Advocate Letitia James says more attention needs to be brought to the spread of the Zika virus through sexual transmission.

Public Advocate Letitia James.
Public Advocate Letitia James.

Public Advocate Letitia James wants New Yorkers to remember that they can contract the Zika virus through sexual transmission, urging more attention to what she believes is an overlooked issue.

At a press conference on the steps of City Hall this morning where she unveiled new recommendations to combat the virus, James said the city is not home to the mosquito most commonly linked to the virus but that reports have indicated that a related mosquito with the potential to carry the virus has been found in the city.

To date, there have been no cases of direct mosquito-to-human transmissions of the Zika virus documented in New York, James said. Most city residents who tested positive for Zika acquired the virus while traveling to Zika-affected areas, but four people contracted it through sexual transmission.

“I don’t believe anyone has focused on the issue of sexual transmission and I believe it’s really critically important that we do everything in our power to stop the spread of the virus through sexual transmission, prevent the spread through childbirth and be prepared for the possible arrival of the Zika mosquito in New York,” James said.

As part of the 6-Step New York State Zika Action Plan, there are currently 20,000 Zika protection kits available to women in that category in 10 regions throughout the state. The kits include educational materials, insect repellent, condoms and mosquito dunks to treat water and prevent mosquitoes from breeding. James, who once handed out free condoms to commuters for Valentine’s Day, praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo for including condoms in the kits.

And the public advocate says she is with Mayor Bill de Blasio on his message to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “step up” and push Congress to fund a $1.9 billion Zika virus emergency bill.

“Unfortunately, diseases…they don’t stop because of vacations, they don’t take vacations. They don’t defer to elected officials who take vacations,” James continued, referring to calls for Congress to come out of its current August recess to pass the emergency funding bill. “This is a healthcare crisis and obviously Congress really needs to get back into session and provide additional funding to protect the lives of Americans as well as the lives of New Yorkers.”

In February, President Barack Obama requested the money but Republicans introduced a measure that would only allow the funding to go through if funding for Planned Parenthood is cut. Congress has not approved any new funding to fight the virus and Democrats filed a discharge petition to bring a bill to the floor.

Among the public advocate’s recommendations are a proposal that the state increase the number of free Zika protection kits to low-income pregnant women and expand the program to assist and protect homeless people in the city.

She also called on the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to expand outreach to community and faith-based organizations to include educational briefings informing people about the health risks and methods of preventing the virus. She said the briefings should be advertised sufficiently and available in multiple languages.

Another recommendation calls for the Port Authority to issue airport warnings to increase travelers’ awareness about the Zika virus. Warnings would include information about the signs and symptoms, treatment and prevention of the Zika virus to travelers arriving from or flying to high-risk countries.

“This is a virus that is especially threatening to pregnant women and hesitation is really not an option,” James said. “We have to be informed about how the virus is spread and what specific measures we can take to ensure that pregnant women are given the healthcare they need to protect their offspring from the virus.”

So far, the city has dedicated $21 million over three years to fighting the virus, increasing testing and educating the public about it. Since it launched its action plan in April, more than 3,400 at-risk pregnant women have been tested, 49 of whom tested positive and one baby being born with microcephaly.

Tish James: No One Is Focusing on Spread of Zika Through Sexual Transmission