Officials meet to discuss the difficulties of fighting the spread of Zika and create response plan

WASHINGTON – According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are currently 153 reported Zika cases in the United States. The CDC classifies these cases into two categories: travel-associated and locally acquired vector-borne. All U.S. cases fall into the former category. In U.S. territories, including American Samoa and Puerto Rico, there are 107 reported cases, only one of which is travel-associated. The rest are locally acquired. There is not a third category for how many cases are from sexual transmission of the virus.

At a Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization briefing Wednesday afternoon, Lyle Petersen, Director of Division of Vector-Borne Diseases at the CDC, ventured a guess as to why there weren’t any locally acquired vector-borne transmissions in the states.

“We know it’s not the mosquito in the U.S. because it’s winter,” Petersen said.

Mosquitoes breed best in warm weather and the Northern Hemisphere is still a few months from consistently high temperatures.

At the same briefing, Marcos Espinal, Director of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis at PAHO said that there were 135,000 cases reported, but only 3,000 had been confirmed by testing.

The reports do not reflect the situation, Espinal said, because symptoms exhibited by some that think they have Zika are not consistent with the virus.

It is difficult to test for the virus if it is not active in the blood. Espinal said there are efforts to develop a reliable test to check for antibodies in the body of someone who no longer has an active Zika infection, but the efforts won’t result in an immediate solution.

“Science needs to run its course,” Espinal said.

Scientists are being urged to figure out the problem faster, as pregnant women and their children are among some of the most affected by the Zika virus. Officials have linked Zika with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the child is born with a smaller head than normal due to abnormal brain development, and Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a condition where the immune system attacks the nerves and can cause paralysis.

“Many women may remain unaware they have the virus, as they may not develop any symptoms,” Sonia Mey-Schmidt, a communication officer at WHO said in an email statement.

“Only one in four people infected with Zika develops symptoms, and in those with symptoms the illness is usually mild,” Mey-Schmidt said.

The symptoms of Zika are similar to that of the flu, which may contribute to why so many cases are reported, but only a fraction are confirmed as Zika.

At a hearing earlier Wednesday at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, several officials testified before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about Zika.

The hearing was titled “Examining the U.S. Public Health Response to the Zika Virus” and featured testimony regarding the spread of Zika virus, the potential link between Zika and other illnesses and the public health response plan of high officials.

Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida urged the testifying officials that a strong, planned response to Zika was needed as soon as possible.

“Ebola was something of a wake-up call,” Castor said, “but with Zika, we’ve got to be more prepared.”

One testifying panel member, Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the lesson learned from Ebola and H1N1 was to be “flexible.” The three priorities of HHS are vaccinations, diagnostic tests, and a blood supply safe from Zika virus.

Lurie said Congressional funding of the administration’s $1.9 billion funding request would ensure an “effective and rapid response” to outbreaks and “accelerate our ability to prevent, detect and respond to Zika” and other diseases.

“Many of our efforts will depend on new resources,” Lurie said. “Zika is our newest threat, but not our last.”

Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC, said so little is known about Zika that “we are literally learning new things every day.”

Frieden agreed with Castor and said the U.S. needs to have a strong response to the spread of Zika. “We can’t let down our guard,” he said.

Frieden called Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, the two mosquito types that are known to be spreading Zika, “cockroach mosquitos”: hard to catch and hard to kill.

Unfortunately, killing the mosquitoes doesn’t seem to help the spread of Zika.

“This mosquito is so tricky that even when we’ve seen very large knockdowns in the mosquito population,” Frieden said, “we haven’t necessarily seen commensurate reductions in human infections.”

Brazil is one of the countries that have been hardest hit by the Zika virus. The Brazilian Ministry of Health said in a report Wednesday that since Oct. 22, 2015, 5,909 cases of Zika-related microcephaly and other nervous system disorders have been reported in Brazil.

Brazil is scheduled to host the Olympics this summer in Rio, which has some on edge.

Paulo Buss, Director of Global Health Center and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation of Brazil said at the PAHO briefing not to worry about Zika during the Olympics.

Mosquitoes like warm temperatures and though August is summer for the Northern hemisphere, it’s winter for the Southern hemisphere. Brazil typically sees a mosquito drop in August, when the Olympics will be.

“Brazil is doing everything it can to avoid being a propagation of this virus,” Buss said.

Regardless of the efforts to make vaccines, develop diagnostic tests and perfect preventative measures, Jason McDonald, Health Communications Specialist for the CDC understands that the public may be more scared than usual that this newest outbreak can affect their children.

“We understand any angst or anxiety families feel knowing there is a mosquito-borne virus capable of harming an unborn baby,” McDonald said in an email statement. “We are working around the clock to understand the nature of the threat in order to protect mothers and their unborn babies.”

Photo: Nicole Lurie of Preparedness and Response, Thomas Frieden of Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Anthony Fauci of National Institutes of Health, Luciana Borio of Food and Drug Administration and Timothy Persons of Government Accountability are sworn in to testify before the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee Wednesday morning. (Screenshot of Livestream via Energy and Commerce Committee)

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