Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
A baby boy born with microcephaly in Harris County is the first Zika-affected infant in Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday.
The baby’s mother contracted Zika in Colombia, and the baby was infected in the womb, according Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. The baby was born a few weeks ago in Harris County outside of Houston, and tests confirmed that he had Zika on Monday, Shah said.
In the state health department news release, State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt called the news “heartbreaking.”
“This underscores the damage Zika can have on unborn babies,” Hellerstedt said. “Our state’s work against Zika has never been more vital.”
Microcephaly is a birth defect in which a baby’s head is unusually small. Depending on the severity of the case, it can cause developmental delay, intellectual disabilities, seizures and other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent study estimated that babies born to women who contracted Zika in their first trimester of pregnancy have a 1 to 13 percent risk of microcephaly.
According to the CDC, as of June 30 seven infants had been born in the United States with Zika-related birth defects.
Texas has identified 59 cases of Zika this year, including three pregnant women, according to the state health department. All the cases involve people who contracted the virus while traveling to places with active Zika transmission.
State health officials believe local transmission of Zika is likely in Texas, though not on a large scale, based on previous experience with dengue, which is also a mosquito-borne virus.
“This case doesn’t mean there’s more risk in Texas, but it’s a sad reminder of the damage Zika can do,” Carrie Williams, a spokesperson for the state health department, said in an email to the Tribune.
Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University, predicted that the baby born with microcephaly in Harris County, represents the start of a wave of such births in Texas, as pregnant women who contracted the virus in Latin America deliver children with an elevated risk of birth defects.
If transmission of Zika begins on the Gulf Coast, Hotez said, there could be a second wave of Zika-affected births months from now.
“There’s a good chance that the transmission of Zika has already started in Texas,” Hotez said. “But without federal funds it’s hard to have the resources to look for it, diagnose it, and do the mosquito control.”
With three days left before its seven-week summer recess, congressional Republicans and Democrats remain deadlocked over Zika funding. Without new funding, research on a Zika vaccine will slow, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who oversees federal vaccine research, told the Miami Herald last week.
Hotez, who has visited Congress frequently in the last few months to advocate for funding, lambasted Congress’s failure to approve funding to fight Zika. In February, President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion in funding for Zika. Congress has haggled for months, but progress appeared possible earlier this week when Democrats said they would agree to budget cuts to pay for a $1.1 billion Republican proposal, if Republicans would agree to remove provisions preventing Planned Parenthood affiliates in Puerto Rico from receiving Zika funding. Republicans rejected that plan yesterday.
“It’s almost as if they don’t believe the scientists or they think we’re making it up,” Hotez said. “It’s really unfortunate.”
In a press release in his capacity as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, invoked the news of the Zika-affected baby to criticize Democrats.
“The day after we held a subcommittee roundtable in Washington, D.C. on the Zika Virus, a child was born in Texas with Zika-related birth defects,” McCaul said in the statement, issued jointly with Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan R-NY. “Senate Democrats need to put aside partisan politics in the face of this public health emergency and pass the supplemental funding at the agreed-upon $1.1 billion level.”
Williams said the state health department is currently fighting Zika with $3.5 million in federal money.
“People need to wear insect repellent,” Williams said. “We’re emphasizing that every day. We’re on alert for local transmission of Zika by mosquitoes, and when that happens our response will be fast and precise in those areas.”
Williams said the federal funding is insufficient to pay for mosquito repellent or abatement efforts, so the department is emphasizing education and training to help people limit contact with mosquitos. Additionally, the state has provided just over $400,000 to fight Zika.
In Harris County, Shah said, the focus is on educating the public about the dangers of mosquito bites, so that if Zika comes to Texas, the public is prepared. Shah, who has met with the mother and her baby, said that Wednesday’s news underscored the importance of that work.