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Rep. Richard Morrissette will host interim study on public health challenges of the Zika virus

Richard, the son of Robert Joseph Morrissette. Photo provided.
State Rep. Richard Morrissette. Photo provided.

Staff Report

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, will host an interim legislative study this year concerning the Zika virus, which spreads to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito.

“This study will shed light on Zika in Oklahoma and the potential for future cases, the work under way by OU Health Sciences epidemiologists, and just how Oklahoma health officials plan to deal with the likely spread of disease, now that budget cuts have occurred,” said Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City.

“We also will look at what prevention measures are being taken by surrounding states. The review also will examine where we are in protecting the most vulnerable populations from Zika, and poor nutrition, such as women of child bearing age and expectant mothers, specifically to focus upon brain development in the fetus.”

Significant flooding occurred in Oklahoma and Texas in 2015, and June was a wet month, Morrissette related. Couple that with the hot temperatures that have settled in Oklahoma, and climate conditions are favorable for the disease-carrying mosquitoes. A dozen cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus have been confirmed in Oklahoma, although every one was a travel-associated case and not a locally acquired incident.

As of July 6, no localized transmissions of the Zika virus had been documented within the United States. Nevertheless, in January the Oklahoma State Department of Health issued an official Zika Health Advisory, supplying information to healthcare providers and other public health partners. A second Zika health advisory was issued in February about sexual transmission of the virus,,In a state House staff release on July 13, Morrissette said, “

Oklahoma has a history of making public health a low priority.” He pointed out that funding was cut to the Oklahoma State Department of Health during the 2016 legislative session that ended May 27.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the states that comprise the South, including Oklahoma, have an overall poverty rate of 16.5 percent. Since 2008, Oklahoma and the other impoverished Southern states that surround it, struggling to balance state budgets, have cut their public health funding by an average of 25 percent, the House staff release reported.

Among those cuts was a 41 percent drop in the number of people working – at least part-time – in mosquito surveillance. CDC (Centers for Disease Control) federal funding to support state and local efforts to monitor and control mosquito-and tick-borne diseases was cut by approximately 74 percent, despite cases of West Nile Virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, all carried by mosquitoes and having occurred since 2008.

“Many expectant mothers in Oklahoma live in poverty, and we know from evidence presented in an interim study held in the Oklahoma House of Representatives last year that these mothers are often unable to maintain access to adequate levels of nutritious food during pregnancy,” said Morrissette.

“Inadequate nutrition can contribute to poor brain development within the fetus. It is known that many women infected with the Zika virus during the first trimester develop a fetus with microcephaly and other severe fetal abnormalities, multiplying the risk and increasing the need for programs of prevention among this population.”

Associate Professor Aaron Wendelboe, Ph.D., and Professor Hélène Carabin, DVM, Ph.D., both of the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health, will present an overview of infectious disease transmission and epidemiology, including a review of the Zika virus and its potential for transmission in Oklahoma, during Morrissette’s interim study this year.

Localized transmission of Zika in the United States is probable in the coming months, according to health experts, which also means a possible increase in cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (damage to nerve cells). But Zika and GBS are just two of the known threats. In the case of Zika, like SARS and MERS, the disease is a single- stranded RNA virus, which means it is highly prone to mutation, meaning that a relatively new disease could emerge, or a brand new virus previously unknown could appear, according to OU Health Sciences epidemiologists.

The CDC reports that the Zika virus spreads to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. People can also get Zika through sex with an infected man, and the virus can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus.

The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild, with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. Humans usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital and they rarely die from Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected.

However, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections.

Rep. Morrissette has served in the Legislature for 12 years. His last term of office runs through late this year. He had announced an intention to seek the state Corporation Commission post ow held by incumbent Republican Dana Murphy.

However, last month he decided to withdraw his name from the November general election ballot. Morrissette said he did so after deciding the impact of his father’s death in April  had effected profoundly.

In mid-July, Morrissette’s withdrawal from the Corporation Commission was formalized.

Morrissette’s tenure at the state Capitol has been marked by careful attention to hunger and nutrition issues, as well as critical scrutiny of public policy on regulation of businesses.

Note: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.

A dozen cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus have been confirmed in Oklahoma, although every one was a travel-associated case and not a locally acquired incident. File photo
A dozen cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus have been confirmed in Oklahoma, although every one was a travel-associated case and not a locally acquired incident. File photo

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