Mayor Turner Asks Gov. Abbott to Declare the Zika Virus a Public Health Emergency

Mayor Sylvester Turner with Senator Sylvia Garcia at an illegal dumping site in north Houston.EXPAND
Mayor Sylvester Turner with Senator Sylvia Garcia at an illegal dumping site in north Houston.
Meagan Flynn

On Thursday Mayor Sylvester Turner called on Governor Greg Abbott to declare the Zika virus a public health emergency so that the city could access millions of dollars in already-available funds and take more preventative measures.

With the onslaught of heavy rains and flooding this spring, Turner said he and elected officials are concerned that the virus, carried by mosquitoes, may spread because there are more mosquito breeding grounds. On a trip on a high-water rescue boat up in the Kingwood area, Turner said, he could literally see mosquito larvae decorating the murky roadside water's surface. Those who come down with Zika are left with flu-like symptoms for several days, but if the person is a pregnant woman, the virus is also linked to causing babies to be born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly. In the past several months, 12 people in Harris County have contracted Zika, which makes up one-third of all Texas cases. Pregnant women have been urged not to travel to Central America, where the disease is most prominent.

“With all of the flooding, all of the rainfall in our area, this is a state of emergency,” Turner said. “What we don't want to do, we don't want to wait like we did with AIDS and HIV, assuming that it impacted people on the other side of the globe, were slow to respond, and then it became a global epidemic. We want to get out in front of this.”

Turner, joined by four state lawmakers at a tire-dumping ground in north Houston, said that illegal dumping and leaving debris from the flood in heaps on the curb heavily contribute to the threat of Zika, given that little pockets of standing water in and around the debris are exactly where mosquitoes like to thrive. Since February, the city has removed 3,000 tons of debris and 19,000 tires; waste-removal efforts are expected to cost $3.6 million this year. Turner said that, if Abbott were to declare Zika a public health emergency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality could distribute millions more in funding to the city from an account specifically designated for solid waste removal to quell public health threats.

Both Representative Armando Walle (D-Houston) and Representative Sarah Davis (R-Houston) made a financial argument for the TCEQ to open up its $130 million account to the city. While prevention efforts like solid waste removal and education campaigns — including having the city's health department go door to door supplying repellent — are costing several million dollars a year, the cost of one child being born with microcephaly will cost even more: up to $10 million by age ten, experts have estimated.

“The conservative approach is using existing resources, and with the TCEQ, that's going to be the right approach,” Davis said. “Because the long-term consequences of doing nothing will be huge. The medical expenses alone for children infected will be staggering, in the millions per child. The fiscally conservative move to make right now is to spend funds on prevention.”

Turner said that many cities, including his, have in the past reacted to crises only after someone loses his or her life. He said he did not want that to be the case with this illness.

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