Pam's Points: Climate change and disease; Congress and a mad nation

Pam's Points: Climate change and disease; Congress and a mad nation

June 13th, 2014 in Opinion Times

A little mosquito help

Climate scientists said it would be like this: Warmer and wetter with more insect-borne diseases.

Sure enough, we're told of a new mosquito-borne virus that's beginning to show up in Tennessee. And health officials say this one doesn't just make you sick, it hurts.

"This is often a terribly painful and uncomfortable illness with no vaccine to prevent it and no specific treatment for those infected," said Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health.

In December 2012, ScienceDaily, an online research news publication, reported on a Cornell University computer model that found global travel and climate warming could be creating the right conditions for outbreaks of a new virus chikungunya in this country. The model calculated predictions by correlating temperature impacts on the Asian tiger mosquito, a non-native but now prevalent mosquito that was introduced in Texas and feeds in the daylight. This aggressive mosquito outcompetes local varieties and transmits more than 20 pathogens, including chikungunya and dengue.

In April, the publication carried another story saying a team of French and Brazilian researchers were warning that chikungunya virus was poised to invade and become epidemic in the Americas.

Now it has been reported in Tennessee in people who recently traveled to the Caribbean, where the illness already is epidemic. Health officials are worried that if mosquitoes here bite infected people and then bite more Tennesseans, the illness will begin to spread here quickly.

Chikungunya (pronounced chik-en-gun-ye) is rarely fatal, but can cause severe joint pain which can sometimes become long-term and disabling, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus' name reflects the condition of many of the stricken, "bent down or become contorted," in the Tanzanian Makonda language.

CNN reported that just when public health officials should be preparing for a chikungunya outbreak in the United States, the federal budget sequestration reduced funding for research on all infectious diseases. Meanwhile, the global warming is enabling the Asian tiger mosquito to breed and spread faster. Yet climate policy remains stalled in Congress where some elected officials still dismiss even the reality of the measurable rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution.

The relationship between climate change and infectious disease needs to be a focus of the nation's strategy for outbreak prevention, preparedness, detection and response.

Perhaps chikungunya will have an upside: We will finally begin to discuss the broader links between rising temperatures and human health.

Politics and the VA

In February, Republicans blocked a bill from independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to provide $21 billion to enhance medical and other benefits for veterans. The senator's bill was the largest piece of veterans legislation in decades, and it aimed to expand health care, education and other benefits. It died on a vote of 56-41, with only two Republicans voting for it. Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker voted against the veterans bill.

Fast forward about four months to this week when, on the heels of a national uproar over long waits for veteran care, Congress is suddenly moving. Both the Senate and House this week passed bills making it easier for veterans who've endured long wait times for Veterans Health Administration medical care to receive treatment from local doctors.

The new Senate bill, approved 93-3, would authorize about $35 billion over three years to pay for the outside care, hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico.

This time, all but three Senate Republicans voted for the bill. Corker stuck to his guns and voted against it again, citing concerns about adding to the national debt. Alexander changed his vote to yes. Another four Republican senators did not vote.

What a difference public outrage makes.