Congress Begins to Tackle Zika Virus

Capitol Hill and health organizations work to move faster than they did during the Ebola crisis.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus spreading throughout Latin America.
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Feb. 1, 2016, 8 p.m.

Con­gress has be­gun ser­i­ously con­tem­plat­ing the threat of Zika, as the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion has is­sued travel pre­cau­tions and the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion on Monday form­ally de­clared the mos­quito-borne vir­us an in­ter­na­tion­al emer­gency.

Law­makers began send­ing a de­luge of let­ters to ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ask­ing for brief­ings from gov­ern­ment ex­perts, ur­ging health agen­cies to study the vir­us, and call­ing for an ag­gress­ive re­sponse to the emer­ging pub­lic-health threat. At least two com­mit­tees an­ti­cip­ate hold­ing hear­ings. The re­sponse so far—let­ters, brief­ings, and im­pend­ing hear­ings—isn’t un­like the last time WHO de­clared a pub­lic-health emer­gency, for the 2014 Ebola out­break—though the re­ac­tion this time may be quick­er.

“The ma­jor act­ors here—Con­gress, the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion—are act­ing faster than dur­ing the Ebola crisis,” said Jen Kates, a Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion vice pres­id­ent, “and I do think it’s in large part be­cause of the Ebola crisis. … There’s a heightened aware­ness of how glob­ally con­nec­ted we are.”

Though both Ebola and Zika eli­cited in­ter­na­tion­al re­sponse, the dis­eases are quite dif­fer­ent.

Ebola is spread through dir­ect con­tact with in­fec­ted body flu­ids and blood; Zika is gen­er­ally spread by mos­qui­toes. Ebola can be fatal; Zika presents mild symp­toms, but there’s a sus­pec­ted con­nec­tion with ser­i­ous birth de­fects in ba­bies of preg­nant wo­men in­fec­ted with the vir­us.

In 2014, the U.S. and oth­er gov­ern­ments came un­der fire for the speed and scale of their re­sponse to Ebola, which rav­aged West Africa and killed thou­sands.

“Glob­al and na­tion­al pub­lic-health in­sti­tu­tions, in many cases, were slow to re­cog­nize or re­spond to the cur­rent Ebola epi­dem­ic for var­ied reas­ons,” ac­cord­ing to a Feb­ru­ary 2015 re­port from the Pres­id­en­tial Com­mis­sion for the Study of Bioeth­ic­al Is­sues. “As has been ob­served throughout his­tory, the be­gin­nings of ma­jor epi­dem­ics can be slow and con­fus­ing and are of­ten only re­cog­nized in ret­ro­spect.”

Con­gress held at least eight hear­ings on Ebola in 2014, the first of which was in Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to a Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion re­port. Then, Con­gress began au­thor­iz­ing the re­pur­pos­ing of funds to re­spond. In Novem­ber 2014, Pres­id­ent Obama asked for $6.18 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing, and the next month Con­gress ap­pro­pri­ated $5.4 bil­lion in its om­ni­bus bill.

“Con­gress was im­port­ant in rais­ing the stakes a little bit about how im­port­ant this was for the gov­ern­ment to deal with,” said Kates, Kais­er’s dir­ect­or of glob­al-health and HIV policy. “Con­gress, I think, through the let­ters, through the hear­ings, and then ul­ti­mately through the ap­pro­pri­ation, ac­ted in a pretty sig­ni­fic­ant way to re­spond to Ebola.”

Less than two years later, mem­bers have turned their at­ten­tion to an­oth­er in­fec­tious dis­ease. Let­ters on the Zika threat have come from sev­er­al mem­bers, in­clud­ing two from Sens. Ron John­son and Thomas Carp­er, the top Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat, re­spect­ively, on the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee; House En­ergy and Com­merce lead­ers; Sen. Patty Mur­ray, the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mem­ber; and more. The Sen­ate HELP Com­mit­tee and the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee aim to hold hear­ings on the vir­us, and oth­er pan­els could join in.  

At least one let­ter com­pli­men­ted the speed at which health agen­cies are tak­ing Zika ser­i­ously—with a caveat. “We com­mend the pro­act­ive ap­proach un­der­taken by the CDC thus far to in­vest­ig­ate the Zika out­break abroad and alert the pub­lic and state and loc­al health of­fi­cials about the risks as­so­ci­ated with the vir­us,” John­son and Carp­er wrote. “However, we be­lieve more can and should be done to en­hance pre­pared­ness and as­cer­tain the nature of the threat Zika poses to our coun­try.”

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