Zika Threatens Puerto Rico’s Blood Supply—and Its Economy

Health officials are concerned the virus will contaminate the island’s blood supply.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Feb 20, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

As health organizations have advised pregnant women to avoid traveling to countries with active Zika outbreaks, the FDA has asked vacationers to refrain from donating blood for up to four weeks after visiting those countries. While that may stop some generous donors from heading to the blood bank, the FDA’s regulations have larger ramifications for Puerto Rico.

Under guidelines issued by the FDA this week, all U.S. territories with active Zika outbreaks must begin importing blood from the U.S. for transfusions. While the Zika virus is present in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, they already import their blood supply from the U.S., according to Reuters. But for Puerto Rico, purchasing blood could become a million-dollar problem in a matter of weeks.

Jose O. Alsina, vice president and COO of Puerto Rico’s largest blood bank, estimates that it will cost about $100,000 per week. Alsina told Reuters he fears the blood banks won’t be able to pay for the imports and their employees, leading to hundreds of layoffs on the island, where nearly 45 percent of population lives below the poverty line.

The virus is typically spread through mosquitoes, but health officials in Brazil confirmed that two people had contracted Zika through blood transfusions earlier this month. Although Zika’s symptoms are typically mild, its link to birth defect microcephaly led the World Health Organization to declare Zika a public health emergency of international concern on Feb. 1.

While purchasing blood from the U.S. could cause Puerto Ricans to suffer financially, health officials see this precaution as a way to mitigate the impact of the virus on the already struggling territory.

“There are concerns about Puerto Rico’s ability to handle a Zika outbreak,” a White House official told The Wall Street Journal.

The first case of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico was documented in November. As of Jan. 28, the Caribbean nation had 30 confirmed cases of the Zika virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials expect to see that number rise into the thousands or even tens of thousands as the weather warms.

Puerto Rico has been struggling financially for more than a decade, unable to repay its more than $70 billion in debt. The poor economy has lead to a mass migration of workers, including health care providers, seeking more opportunities outside of the island. Puerto Rico is also limited to a fixed amount of Medicaid funding regardless of the actual costs, unlike the U.S.

Last week, President Barack Obama said he would ask Congress to approve $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus, with $250 million designated to help fund Medicare and Medicaid services in Puerto Rico.