Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis Poses A Special Problem For Zika Fighting Efforts


Drowning in debt that has forced health clinics and hospitals to shutter across the island, Puerto Rico has never been less prepared for Zika.

The mosquito-borne virus is overwhelming the island, where health officials estimate nearly a fourth of residents will be infected within the year. Nearly 700 Puerto Ricans have tested positive for Zika, including 65 pregnant women, and one man has died from Zika-related complications.

Though the Department of Health and Human Services approved $5 million to help Puerto Rico expand its family planning services and general public education last week, it’s still waiting on Congress’ approval of President Obama’s request to expand the territory’s Medicaid services for one year. Plus, as the territory teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, it needs Congress to draft a special law to help address its debt. Puerto Rico defaulted on its largest debt payment yet on Monday, a sign that more defaults are likely to come in the absence of legislation in this area. Congress has little time before its summer recess — which incidentally falls around the time Zika is estimated to hit the U.S. in full force — to give Puerto Rico the financial boost it needs.

In hopes of filling in the gaps that Congress is slow to cover, mainland allies have decided to take action independently. On Monday, New York City Health Department announced it will be sending 1 million condoms to Puerto Rico in hopes of quelling the virus, which has been found to be transmitted through sex along with mosquito bites.


“As the Zika virus epidemic spreads and we continue to learn more about the risk of sexual transmission and birth defects, we wanted to use our resources to help our longstanding partners in Puerto Rico,” Health Commissioner Mary Bassett wrote to her Puerto Rican counterpart, Ana Ríus Armendáriz, according to the New York Daily News.

After Florida, New York has the highest number of confirmed Zika cases in the U.S. at 77 — and is preparing for a summer influx, especially in New York City.

“The Zika virus poses a serious threat across the globe,” New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito told the Daily News. “And the high infection rates in Puerto Rico are a somber reminder that Congress must grant Puerto Rico as much health care funding as it provides to all other U.S. Citizens.” condoms cover just one piece of the Zika problem. The most common way Zika has been contracted is through mosquito bites — a common occurrence on a tropical island. And protecting yourself from bites comes at a cost, one that the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living in poverty can’t always afford.

“If you don’t have access to money to buy repellent, to sleep with an air conditioner on so mosquitoes won’t bite you, to have mosquito nets around you and you live in areas where there’s more stagnant water, obviously you have higher risks,” Alberto de la Vega, an obstetrician at San Juan’s University Hospital, told Reuters.

Democrats don’t think Congress’ current allocation of about $600 million in existing funds to combat Zika will be enough. Additionally, these funds are being shifted away from other crucial programs, like Ebola response funding and state emergency preparedness programs — which, ironically, are used to fight infectious diseases like Zika. President Obama’s request of an additional $1.9 billion could provide Puerto Rico’s low-income residents with the tools to protect themselves during the hottest, most mosquito-filled months of the year. But that means Congress, currently on a 10-day recess, will have to agree.