The Zika Funding Trap
Microbial Solutions
Alan Hoberman

The Zika Funding Trap

Playing political games at the expense of a global public health crisis.

When you see the children it all becomes too real.        

At the Teratology Society’s 56th meeting in San Antonio late last month, the Warkany Lecture, named after one of the founding fathers of Teratology, Dr. Joseph Warkany, was given by Dr. Elaine Faustman, a professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Department at the University of Washington. Dr. Faustman’s discussion partially looked at the thalidomide crisis in the 1950s. Retrospectively, we know this remedy for morning sickness was teratogenic, but when it was approved for use in West Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia, among other countries, the public was unaware that it was also detrimental to the fetus.

In fact, there are a number of factors, including viruses, high doses of vitamins and other nutrients, as well as drugs that can cause normal reproductive development to go awry. Zika, a mosquito-borne virus is the most famous present-day example. At the Teratology Meeting, three doctors also presented data on Zika infections in Brazil, which has become Ground Zero for this growing public health problem. (Some of their findings were also published earlier this year in JAMA Ophthalmology.)

The Brazilian doctors have been identifying and treating pregnant women and their offspring since the start of the Zika outbreak over a year ago. A large number of pregnant women known to be infected with Zika have terminated their pregnancies, but others have gone full-term. Tragically, approximately 30% of the babies from these infected women have some form of microcephaly. These babies have brains that have failed to grow to normal size, leading to severe mental retardation and, in many cases, blindness or very poor eyesight.  As an animal reproductive toxicologist, seeing pictures of 20160718-scipolimage-294x152-eurekahomethese children brought home for me the devastating outcomes of the birth defects we spend our days studying. As was the case with thalidomide, the data and images available make it clear that these children will need major medical care for the rest of their lives. The cost to care for these children will be tremendous and far outweigh any money spent researching prevention methods for Zika. And it’s not only microcephaly that strikes a chord. Every year at this meeting, we see infants and young children struggling with fetal alcohol syndrome, thought to be the  most common cause of preventable mental retardation. 

While it is fulfilling to hear about the work that is being conducted by industry to prevent another thalidomide tragedy, it is also concerning when we hear that our US Congress has not even appropriated sufficient funds to complete vaccine trials and institute research that could help prevent Zika infections. A US $1.9 billion aid package proposed by President Obama remains stalled in Congress, in part over efforts to restrict government financing for Planned Parenthood.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the US agency overseeing many of the vaccine research and development efforts related to Zika, said in an interview in the Miami Herald recently that they’ve been diverting funds from other vaccine projects, such as malaria, universal influenza and tuberculosis, in order to keep the Zika vaccine work going. However, that money is expected to run out by August. Unless the US government reaches some agreement that would provide additional funding for Zika, the work will slow to a crawl because there won’t be any money to pay for it.

It is such a shame that our representatives continue to play games over contraception and money going to the “wrong organizations” over more pressing topics, including: developing a vaccine, counseling those infected with Zika, and researching how the virus attacks the developing nervous system of fetuses. We are still dealing with the after-effects of the thalidomide crisis of the 50s, and need to learn from past mistakes the importance of prevention in regards to birth defects.

How to Cite:

Hoberman, Alan. The Zika Funding Trap. Eureka bog. Jul. 19, 2016. Available: