Texas Medicaid will begin providing mosquito repellent to all expectant mothers and women between the ages of 10 and 45, as public health officials grapple with the likelihood that Texas will see at least some local transmissions of the Zika virus.
Women in the state program will be eligible to receive two cans of repellent a month through October, when Texas' peak mosquito season ends. The state Health and Human Services Commission said Wednesday that distribution of the repellent will begin next week, and women will be able to pick it up at pharmacies after calling their doctor. The state is expected to spend about $12.6 million on the program.
At least 15 people around Miami have already become infected locally with Zika, which has been linked to fetal deaths and severe birth defects in the children of women infected during pregnancy.
Public health officials have long believed that mosquitoes transmitting Zika in Texas would be inevitable.
They are particularly concerned about urban centers along the U.S. Gulf Coast, with its humid climate and existing populations of the mosquito known to carry the virus.
So far, 93 people in Texas are reported to have been infected. All of the infections have been linked to travel or sexual transmission.
Officials at all levels have spent months urging residents to wear insect repellent regularly, particularly those who travel to countries where Zika is widespread.
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"Insect repellent has a greater potential as a tool, a weapon, against Zika than practically anything else we can do," said Dr. John Hellerstedt, director of the Texas Department of State Health Services, in an interview Wednesday.
The federal agency overseeing Medicaid issued a bulletin two months ago advising states that they could provide insect repellent through the program, which is funded jointly by the federal government and states. Of the other Gulf Coast states, Florida had already been providing mosquito repellent through Medicaid, and Mississippi began doing so this week. Louisiana has plans to distribute repellent only if there are local transmissions of Zika in the state. Officials in Alabama did not return a message.
Hellerstedt said state officials moved with "all deliberate speed" to pay for the expansion, which will cover Medicaid recipients, participants in the Children's Health Insurance Program, and the state's Healthy Texas Women and family planning programs.
"It's all about having access to something that is potentially very, very useful," Hellerstedt said. "What might seem to be a trivial barrier to somebody who is middle class or upper-middle class may be a significant barrier to some of the folks on Medicaid."
The state health department has also expanded its capacity to test for Zika both in people with symptoms and those who believe they may have been previously infected. The department currently estimates it can run up to 32 serology tests a week, intended for people who no longer have symptoms.
Texas Leutenant Governor Dan Patrick released the following statement:
As the U.S. sees an increase in Zika virus cases, particularly with the cases of local transmission in Florida, Texas continues to be proactive in its efforts to control this devastating virus.
Several months ago, I asked Senator Charles Schwertner, Chairman of Health and Human Services, to hold a special hearing on Zika. It was important to me that Texas be as prepared as possible for this fast spreading virus.
With 90 confirmed cases of travel-related Zika virus in Texas, the state is working closely with federal and local partners to minimize the impact of Zika on the state.
Texas received approval of just over $6 million in federal funding to assist with Zika preparedness and response efforts, including funding for Zika response teams, epidemiology and laboratory capacity and birth defects surveillance.
I will continue to work with state health officials to ensure an effective and swift response to this public health threat. Additional information about the state's response to the Zika virus can be found at: www.texaszika.org.
Zika infections in pregnant women can cause severe brain-related birth defects.