The Zika Virus: Countering An Emerging Public Health Threat

In 1947, a virus was discovered in the Zika Forest of Uganda.  For nearly all of the next 70 years, that now infamous infection was confined to a narrow band along the Equator in Africa and Asia, and the mosquito-borne virus was believed to cause little more than mild fever symptoms that passed in about one week. 

That changed dramatically in 2013, when Zika fever began to rapidly spread through a wide region of the Pacific.  Last year, the infection suddenly jumped into the Western Hemisphere and quickly reached pandemic levels in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.  Research has recently determined that the virus can cause microcephaly – a rare neurological condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads – and other fetal brain defects.  In addition to serious birth defects, the Zika virus has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder affecting both adults and children that can cause paralysis and even death. 

Suddenly, what was once considered a local health nuisance became a global threat.  This February, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.  This designation is reserved for extraordinary global health crises, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

To learn more about this virus and other public health challenges, I recently toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, with my friend and colleague Senator Johnny Isakson.  I was deeply impressed by the team of extraordinarily dedicated public servants who work there.  These scientists leverage an enormous range of knowledge to protect the American people, including through rapid response to infectious disease threats.

I was particularly alarmed by the scientific models we were shown that demonstrated how quickly and widely this virus can spread.  CDC’s experts told me that they call the mosquito that carries the Zika virus the “cockroach of the mosquito world” because it is so difficult to get rid of.  This mosquito can breed in the water that fits inside the size of a bottle cap.  It is commonly found in the United States in areas such as Florida and our Gulf Coast, and it also transmits diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya. 

As of May 18, 2016, there are nearly 1,400 cases of Zika virus in the United States and its three territories, including three laboratory-confirmed cases in the State of Maine.  In addition, the CDC recently announced that the number of Zika cases among pregnant women in the United States has increased from 48 to 157.  While the natural range of the Zika-carrying mosquito poses the greatest immediate threat to our southern states, the fact is that there are confirmed Zika cases in virtually every single state due to travel.  Puerto Rico has been especially hard hit, with the number of locally acquired cases topping 700. 

These statistics are even more alarming when you consider that we have not yet reached the summer months when mosquitos tend to be more prevalent.  Recent studies suggest that Zika might spread across the warmer and wetter parts of the Western Hemisphere.  As many as 200 million people in our country live in areas where the mosquito that carries the virus could potentially thrive.

Americans are justifiably worried about the Zika virus, as the failure to prevent its spread could have devastating consequences for our families.  In addition to the human and emotional toll, the Zika virus may ultimately cost the United States an astonishing sum of money when you consider that we already spend more than $2.6 billion per year on hospital stays related to birth defects.

It is imperative that we take steps to combat the Zika virus without delay.  As the Chairman of the Senate Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, I strongly supported a bipartisan amendment to provide $1.1 billion in emergency funding to address the Zika threat.  This crucial funding includes $361 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $200 million for the National Institutes of Health. 

Washington should do more to plan for emerging disease threats through the regular appropriations process so that we do not have to turn frequently to emergency supplemental funding.  But the Zika virus is an imminent and evolving public health threat that cannot wait, that cannot be ignored.  The CDC has a very specific plan to rapidly respond to this serious threat, including developing diagnostic tests that will help us identify the virus and helping to educate providers and the public about appropriate prevention methods. 

The role of the CDC is particularly important because it is the interface with state and local public health centers and agencies, so it is absolutely critical in the education and prevention process. The NIH is similarly prepared to conduct research into vaccines that might help us better prevent the virus and the conditions that it can tragically cause.  But again, that requires funding.

The CDC has sounded the alarm in its warning about a serious Zika outbreak in our country.  It is essential that we devote sufficient financial resources to meet this new challenge. I am proud that the Senate is doing its part to deal with this serious threat to our public health.