Concerns grow over Hawaii's ability to prepare for Zika virus - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Concerns grow over Hawaii's ability to prepare for Zika virus

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

As concerns about the Zika virus grow, there are new doubts about Hawaii's ability to handle the threat.

Government resources are already taxed in responding to the dengue fever outbreak on Hawaii Island, with 242 confirmed cases so far.

That's something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made clear in December, after analyzing the state's dengue fever response.

The dengue fever outbreak has hit record numbers and the CDC review said the state has "a lack of technical and general staffing capacity at the Department of Health." 

The federal agency also writes in the report, "current resources are taxed, and there is limited surge capacity if another significant health event arises in the state."

Zika, which like dengue is spread by mosquitoes, is "spreading explosively" in the Americas, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers say there's a strong link between Zika and an explosion of microcephaly, in which children are born with an abnormally small head and underdeveloped brain.

So far, no cases of Zika have been acquired in the United States. But some people who have traveled to the Americas have come back with the virus.

That's what happened to a Hawaii woman, who recently gave birth to a baby with microcephaly on Oahu. Health officials said the mother likely had a Zika infection when she was living in Brazil in May 2015.

State Sen. Josh Green, who represents the Big Island, says he's introduced legislation to provide more resources to the Health Department.

Legislation could take months to implement, so he wants the governor to allow the department to take immediate action.

Keith Kawaoka, deputy director of the state Department of Health's Environmental Health Administration, says he would welcome any help -- and needs it now.

Kawaoka wasn't surprised by the CDC report because the DOH's budget has been slashed significantly in recent years. The department went from 52 vector control workers to about 25.  

Kawaoka is hoping to get a total of 10 positions added to the budget now, at a cost of $500,000.

"We are taking measures to actually identify positions right now that either we can get positions from other departments for example or do some emergency hiring in some regard," he said.

The 10 positions would include 8 vector control workers, another epidemiologist, and an additional communications hire.

Kawaoka says the additional staff could help them get dengue fever under control while preparing for the Zika threat.

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