Colombia Shows We Can Fight Zika — If We Have the Resources

August 3, 2016 By David Stein

The global health threat posed by Zika was made starkly clear when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a warning that pregnant women should not travel to a Miami neighborhood where the virus has spiked.

Yet, around the same time, Colombia remarkably declared an end to its Zika epidemic. Colombia was one of the hardest-hit countries, with the second-highest number of infections after Brazil. But unlike Brazil, Colombia had a robust Zika monitoring system in place when the first infections were confirmed due in part to international support from U.S. health officials.

The success achieved in Colombia – and the threat posed by Zika to the U.S. – highlights the importance of the President’s emergency supplemental funding request to combat Zika, currently awaiting the return of members of Congress from their summer recess.

A New Chapter in U.S. – Colombia Collaboration

America’s long-standing economic and security assistance to Colombia is well-documented: when the country was on the brink of collapse due to a civil war, U.S. assistance through Plan Colombia helped transform the country into the strong strategic ally and economic partner it is today. Indeed, thanks to America’s investments, violence in Colombia is at its lowest level since 1973, U.S. exports to Colombia have quadrupled to over $16 billion, and a peace agreement between the Colombian Government and FARC is forthcoming.

What may be less well known is that the United States also partners with Colombia on global health. This is a major element of Plan Colombia’s successor, Peace Colombia, which was recently announced by President Obama. Through Peace Colombia, the U.S. will collaborate with Colombia to research infectious diseases and figure out the best way to address them.

The results of this partnership have already been demonstrated from the CDC’s work with Colombia’s National Health Institute to set up the Zika surveillance system. This monitoring system allowed them to track the spread of the disease, as well as the impact on pregnant women and children, so that health officials knew exactly what they were up against.

The Need for a Strong International Affairs Budget

While much of the debate around funding for Zika has focused on domestic resources, a significant portion of the CDC’s global health portfolio is funded by the International Affairs Budget though interagency transfers from USAID and the State Department.

The CDC views its global health efforts as vital to achieving its mission to “protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S.” As the CDC points out, “The most effective and least expensive way to protect Americans from diseases and other health threats that begin overseas is to stop them before they spread to our shores.”

In other words, helping developing countries strengthen their own internal health systems is not only the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do for America’s health security. The recent news from Florida is an unfortunate illustration of this reality, and one that Congress must not ignore.

Photo Source: CDC Global