Urging Congress to provide more resources in the fight against Zika, a top federal health official on Wednesday warned Congress that the virus is likely to spread into tropical areas of the United States such as Puerto Rico and South Florida, where the Aedes aegypti mosquito is common.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden told members of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the number of U.S. Zika cases has risen and cautioned that if the virus takes root, it could spread as rapidly as the chikungunya virus did in 2014, when the disease, also carried by mosquitoes, crisscrossed Puerto Rico in less than a year.
Acknowledging that a case of Zika was spread through sexual contact in Dallas, Frieden said much was still unknown about the virus, including the depth of its health effects and how long it could survive in bodily fluids. He said mosquito eradication remained the best way to fight the virus.
“There is the enemy,” Frieden said, directing the attention of members of Congress to a picture of an Aedes mosquito, distinguished by white markings on its legs. “It hides in closets, under tables and places that are harder to get to. . . . It can bite four or five people in the course of one blood meal, meaning it can spread the disease very quickly. Our efforts to control it are challenging.”
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This is one that is sneaking up on us and we’re not paying enough attention.
Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Fla.
Rep. Curt Clawson, a Republican from Florida’s Gulf Coast, expressed concern that despite widespread publicity in recent weeks about Zika, not enough is being done to combat the virus. He peppered Frieden and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health, with questions about vaccinations, outdoor spraying and the possible use of genetically modified mosquitoes to disrupt breeding patterns.
“This is one that is sneaking up on us and we’re not paying enough attention,” Clawson said following the hearing. “If we deal with it prior to an outbreak we’d be much better off.”
More than 30 countries and territories have reported local transmissions of the Zika virus, which, when contracted by pregnant women, is thought to be the cause of a birth defect characterized by an unusually small head and developmental problems. The World Health Organization declared the rapidly spreading virus a public health emergency, reflecting the concern internationally.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus domestically and internationally. The money would be used for testing and surveillance to help control any potential outbreak. It would also be put toward finding a vaccine.
Fauci said work was underway on finding a vaccine but that finding one wasn’t likely before the end of 2017.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott declared a health emergency last week after at least nine new cases of the virus were found in four counties. At least 16 cases have been discovered statewide, including six in Miami-Dade.
It hides in closets, under tables and places that are harder to get to. . . . It can bite four or five people in the course of one blood meal, meaning it can spread the disease very quickly.
Thomas Frieden, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Frieden said Florida was one of the key tropical areas of the United States likely to face a challenge controlling Zika. He noted the region has a huge number of mosquitoes, as well as sporadic outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, both which also are carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Chikungunya was discovered in about 450 people who traveled through Florida in 2014. Eleven people contracted the virus in Florida. Dengue fever struck Key West in 2009, infecting 27 people, and again in 2011, infecting 66 people.
The Zika hearing was reminiscent of another in 2014 involving Frieden and Fauci when they faced even tougher questions on the U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa.
At the time, several Republicans called for travel restrictions to prevent new Ebola cases from coming to U.S. While there were questions about monitoring at the nation’s international airports, no one demanded travel restrictions for the Zika virus.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the subcommittee on global health, said awareness about Zika needed to be raised, but noted a major difference: Ebola was a deadly disease easily spread by human-to-human contact. With Zika, the symptoms are so mild that those infected may not even realize it.
But Rep. Jeff Duncan, a California Republican who is chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, said Zika should not be dismissed. He worried that Central American migrants crossing the Southwest border might be carrying it, and that it has been linked not only to microcephaly in newborns, but to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis in adults.
Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat and a physician, raised concerns about the possibility of the virus being active in semen and other bodily fluids. But he cautioned people not to overreact.
“Looking at this as a health care professional, I would urge that we don’t panic,” Berra said. “I would urge that we collect the data. If folks are traveling to endemic areas, obviously take the usual precautions.”