Education programs and research funding are needed by both federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and research institutes in academia in order to increase public awareness of the threat of Zika virus as well as to make medical advances towards disease prevention and treatment.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a roundtable discussion on June 29 to discuss the impact of Zika in the United States currently and ways to protect the nation from a further health threat.
Zika virus was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) in February 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus spreads primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito and usually has mild symptoms. However, Zika can result in serious birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected. This includes microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development.
There are over 800 cases of Zika in the United States, and around 250 pregnant women who have been affected, according to Committee member Tom Carper (D-Del.). He said more resources need to be put towards vaccine development in order to create a proactive response.
“Going forward, we must act swiftly to ensure that we have the tools needed to protect us from Zika. However, such aid should not come at the expense of ongoing efforts to contain other dangerous diseases such as Ebola and avian influenza,”
Carper said. H. Fisk Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer of S.C. Johnson & Son, said urban areas in the southern United States are at a higher risk for Zika transmission through mosquito bites. Mosquitos breed at higher rates in densely populated areas.
Homeland Security Today previously reported that the warm climate present in southern states, particularly Florida, presents an ideal setting for Zika to spread. Public health experts say the United States has competent mosquito vectors that support local transmission here.
“I do think one of the most important ways the government in this country can help is in environmental controlling mosquitos before they breed and helping with education, public service announcements, communication, helping people understand what they can do to help eliminate the mosquito threat,” Johnson explained.
Johnson said getting to high-risk cities with programs to help inform individuals on symptoms, preventative measures and treatment options will assist in countering the Zika threat.
Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said the onset of mosquito season has led to an increase in the number of cases. She explained there are not definite predictors for how pregnant women will be affected by the Zika virus, even with testing and ultrasounds.
“We don’t have a big enough experience to know how predictive the virus will be … I think it’s too soon for us to have a very confident sense of information to counsel women with,” Schuchat said.
Colonel Christopher Zahn, vice president of practice activities at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said there are recommendations for women contemplating pregnancy based onevidence gathered regarding the timeline for infection rates. Zahn said the only way to prevent Zika virus being transmitted through pregnancy is through contraception.
“We need resources to be able to look at detection and prevention strategies and treatment efforts as well, including a vaccine which is still probably a few years away but also a critically important aspect,” Zahn said.
There are several candidate vaccines to address Zika infection threats; however, there are still trials that need to begin in order to determine larger steps towards developing a Zika vaccine, Schuchat said. Effective vaccines are at least a few years away and it is unclear how they would assist pregnant women.
“We don’t live in a world where we have only one infectious disease problem at a time we live in a world where Ebola and Zika can happen at the same time and we need to as a country be able to manage that,” Schuchat said.