Statewide Zika conference held in McAllen

McALLEN — Public health officials from across Texas converged here Wednesday to discuss all things Zika.

Hidalgo County is at the forefront of this public health issue because it will likely be one of the regions first affected by the Zika virus as it slowly spreads from South America to North America. Public health officials here have held several conferences, including a bi-national one with Mexico, in preparation for a potential outbreak.

Wednesday’s conference at the McAllen Convention Center was well attended, with more than 450 people from across the state registered for the event. Dr. John Hellerstedt, a commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, was among the guests, as well as State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Texas Rep. Bobby Guerra.

“The whole focus today is to bring in all of these folks to come in with a united statewide plan that will collaborate with all our various partners — city, county, state and federal officials — to work hand in hand to make sure that we as a state can respond in the event that we have a Zika situation,” said Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services.

There are currently 40 cases in Texas, but none of them are homegrown, Olivarez said.

“However, we know of cases being investigated south of Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon, which is only three hours away,” he said. “So there’s always a concern. It will be in Texas eventually.”

And public health officials want to be prepared when it does come through the front door.

“This is not like a hurricane where we have one or two days to plan,” Olivarez said. “We have weeks and months for this. The sooner we can get focused, the better.”

Funding remains a concern. At the congressional level, a proposal was submitted to the Senate, but it stalled. And cuts to public health in the state are even more troublesome.

“Some of them I’m not very happy with, especially as it affects the Rio Grande Valley and my constituents and those that are in need,” Guerra said about the cuts. “But at the same time this is one more funding issue that’s also important to our area and to the state of Texas.”

Guerra, who serves on the state public health committee, said funding for Zika is “being seriously looked at.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there will be some funding for this,” he said Wednesday. “Where we go from there depends on how things develop in Austin.”

Olivarez fears the money won’t come until Zika strikes first.

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