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.”