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Is the US Ready? WHO Declares Zika Virus International Emergency

Is the US Ready? WHO Declares Zika Virus International Emergency Homeland Security TodayWith the recent announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) designating the Zika virus as a public health emergency of international concern, the nation must now grapple with the issue of how to control the rapid spread of Zika and other emerging infectious diseases around the world.

On the heels of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak—the deadliest in history—public health experts are growing increasingly worried over whether the United States is adequately prepared to prevent, respond, and recover from serious public health threats.

The Zika virus, originally discovered in Uganda in the late 1940s, is spread through mosquito bites and is rapidly expanding its reach in the Americas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes).

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said at a media briefing on Monday that experts “strongly suspect” a causal relationship between Zika and birth defects, including a rare congenital condition called microcephaly in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. However, this link has not been scientifically proven.

As Homeland Security Today recently reported, the CDC has issued an alert recommending enhanced precautions or postponed travel for people intending to travel to regions and certain countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.

Although no crystal ball can predict whether the Zika virus will spread throughout the United States, the illness has been reported in travelers returning from affected countries. The Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) said on Tuesday it received confirmation from the CDC that a case of the Zika virus was transmitted through sexual contact this year.

“Now that we know Zika virus can be transmitted through sex, this increases our awareness campaign in educating the public about protecting themselves and others,” said Zachary Thompson, DCHHS director.

Furthermore, public health experts say the United States has competent mosquito vectors that support local transmission here.

In Florida, for example, the warm climate and mosquitoes present an ideal setting for the Zika virus to spread. Because South Florida is an entry point for many Latin American travelers, the area could see locally-transmitted cases of the virus by the summer.

Dr. Kenneth R Ratzan, Chief Infectious Disease and Hospital Epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, told Homeland Security Today that Zika is unlikely to pose a major problem in the United States. If it does, however, he believes the US health system will be prepared to respond.

“Although we have the mosquito vector in US we have not seen dengue or chickungunya spread to US and those viruses are transmitted by same mosquito vector,” Ratzan said. “If we do see transmission of Zika in the US, the best means of protection are eradication of breeding sites for mosquitoes, insect control by health departments, and mosquito protection in the form of insect repellants, e.g. DEET.”

Concerned over the threat posed by Zika, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent letters to Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS) Jeh Johnson and CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden asking for more information about federal efforts to address the potential threat posed by the virus.

“The reports of the spread of this virus, and the debilitating and life threatening conditions that it may be causing, are very concerning – especially considering the potential threat it poses to expectant mothers and their unborn children,” Carper said. “Just like with our response to Ebola, our response to Zika must be an all-hands-on-deck effort. It is also important that the federal government continue to explore any possible links between Zika and other serious maladies.”

Carper emphasized that federal agencies, especially DHS and CDC, need to work together with state and local officials to ensure the public stays informed.

Johnson added, “The Zika virus has left tragedy in its wake, and while I appreciate that federal agencies are beginning to focus on the emerging threat of the virus, more must be done. We need to ensure that federal agencies are working closely together and with the international community to stop its rapid spread.”

Carper and Johnson requested that DHS and CDC provide the following information: descriptions of how the CDC plans to work with state and local health officials to develop a national Zika surveillance strategy for humans and mosquitos; current and planned future assistance the CDC is providing to Brazil and other impacted countries, as well as Puerto Rico; and resources and programs currently available to state and local health officials to address a potential outbreak.

The Senators also asked CDC to provide estimates of the likelihood and potential scale of a Zika outbreak occurring in the US; and, a description of any additional coordination, research, assistance or public awareness activities CDC plans to undertake to further prepare for the possibility of a Zika outbreak in the United States.

Similarly, former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former governor and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, who co-chair the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, have also raised concerns over US preparedness to tackle public health emergencies.

Commenting on the Zika outbreak, Lieberman stated, “We are seeing a pattern of viruses emerge in one part of the world and make their way across the globe. The aggressive surveillance and public education that CDC and global health authorities are undertaking with respect to Zika is encouraging. But the reality is that we still lack rapid diagnostics, vaccines, or treatments.”

Ridge added, “We also found that the United States needs to lead the way toward a functional global health response apparatus; we cannot allow these or other emerging infections to become out of hand like Ebola did.”

This past summer, Ridge and Lieberman co-wrote an exclusive article for Homeland Security Today emphasizing the need for centralized leadership in preparing for and responding to emerging public health threats.

“What all of this requires is centralized leadership,” wrote Ridge and Lieberman. “The laudable efforts of hard-working public servants throughout the government lack a harmonizing and forward-looking force at the White House to ensure needed activities occur and that efforts are coordinated. The White House has made impressive strides toward interagency coordination, but, in reality, a total paradigm shift that employs a much greater level of centralized prioritizing, planning and operating with respect to the crossovers of animal and human health is necessary.”

The seemingly endless string of recent infectious disease threats, from avian influenza to Ebola and now Zika, demands a well-coordinated global response. Public health experts say the Ebola crisis highlighted serious gaps in the nation’s preparedness for public health emergencies.

Although the severity of the current Zika outbreak is unknown, with no vaccine or treatment available, the United States needs to act now. And it needs to act quickly.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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