Health Centers are the Perfect Weapon in the Fight Against Zika

I don’t care who you are – You should be scared of Zika. And, by scared, I don’t mean that you should panic. That doesn’t help anyone. But this virus needs to be taken seriously - Even public health experts are sounding the alarm. There is still so much that is unknown about it’s transmission and the possible long-term effects for those infected. Originally, Zika was thought to have its most devastating impacts on developing fetuses, but the possibility has now been raised that the virus might have long-term effects on the brain cells of infected children and adults as well, leading to problems with memory similar to Alzheimer’s disease (Source). And if you’re pregnant or wanting to become pregnant anytime soon, the thought of Zika can be downright terrifying. This is a virus spread by something as simple as a mosquito bite or sex - with the infected often showing no symptoms - that kills fetal brain cells and can lead to a host of horrifying birth defects and health issues for your unborn child. Sounds like something out of a horror movie, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, the bickering behavior of Congress over the Zika funding bill is not helping the situation. This has been going on since FEBRUARY, and there is still no resolution. Here’s an interesting article about that craziness, if you’re interested in more details.

But while we might not know everything there is to know about Zika, or even what’s going to happen with the funding bill, one thing is for certain: Health Centers need to be prepared if and when Zika comes knocking at their doors. Why? Because community health centers (CHCs) might be our best weapon in the fight against Zika.

Consider this: The population most likely to utilize CHCs are the poorest segment of the population. These are the people who are the most at-risk for contracting Zika. Why?

  1. They are the most likely people to be living in housing without air conditioning and without proper window screens, both of which increase one’s chance of being bitten by mosquitoes.
  2. They are the most likely people to lack the funds for proper protective clothing and mosquito repellent.
  3. Pregnant women in this population are at the most risk for not receiving proper – or any – prenatal care, particularly during the first trimester. Early prenatal care is essential for Zika screening and the monitoring of the fetus if the mother has been infected.
  4. This population is the least likely to have access to adequate birth control and family planning services.

In addition to the fact that CHCs are already serving the most at-risk portion of the population, it is important to note that health centers, by their very design, are the natural choice to lead the charge in fighting the spread of Zika. CHCs understand the needs of their community better than anyone, and thus are in the perfect position to know which efforts are most likely to be effective. Further, health centers are expert community collaborators who often have strong ties to local health departments, government agencies, and other community outreach organizations.

So, now that we’ve established that CHCs are perfect for the job, what are we doing about it? Although screening and education efforts are currently being undertaken by many health centers, questions remain about whether enough health centers are adequately prepared. For instance, at the 2016 Conference for Agricultural Worker Health in May, the Migrant Clinician's Network conducted a Needs Assessment designed to provide a "snapshot of readiness around the US." The results revealed that about half of the respondents expressed concerns about their health center's readiness to address Zika. When asked "What is the most effective action your health center can take to prevent, treat, and document Zika?" the respondents were "largely unsure" (Source). Assuming that this sample of 51 health center clinicians is representative of the entire CHC population, this is not where we should be.

To be fair, battling a virus like Zika is not as simple as it might seem on the surface. Bob Eadie, who runs the Monroe County Health Department in Florida, shared the following insights:

In theory, controlling the spread of the Zika virus is simple; prevent everyone from being bitten by an infected Aedes Egypti mosquito, eliminate the population of the mosquitoes carrying the disease, and have everyone who has possibly been exposed use safe sex practices. In reality, not so much. Public Health has been struggling to accomplish these goals with limited (sometimes very limited) success for decades.

I have been a public health official for over 30 years, and I believe the Zika virus outbreak is unfolding as the most challenging and perplexing issue public health has faced in recent times. To be successful in controlling it, innovative and effective leadership, active participation by the general public, and the commitment of necessary resources will be required.
— Bob Eadie, Adminstrator, Monroe County Health Dept.

Mr. Eadie is exactly right in his concern for the situation at hand, and his belief that, despite the challenges presented by Zika, we can defeat it. It's going to take work, but I know that health centers are up for the challenge of leading this charge. Our patients need us, and we can't let them down.

Here are some excellent and trustworthy resources to help your health center fight Zika:

CDC's Key Zika Considerations for Healthcare Settings

CDC's Zika Virus: Resources For Healthcare Providers

CDC's Top 10 Zika Response Planning Tips: Brief Information for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Health Officials

National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) Zika Resource Page


Jennifer Garces de Marcilla is a Consultant at FQHC Associates, a health care consulting firm specializing in the needs of established, new and potential Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).

Read more about Jennifer here.

To contact Jennifer, email her at jweinman@fqhc.org.

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