Frieden and Fauci: While evidence of Zika impacts mounts, lack of funding complicates response, slows work on other health threats

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“There is nothing about Zika control that is quick and easy,” CDC director says

Citing growing evidence linking Zika virus to microcephaly and other abnormalities potentially affecting sight, hearing, and development of babies born to infected women, as well as to Guillain–Barré syndrome among adults, U.S. health response and research leaders said lack of funding is hindering the planning and delivery of urgent work to confront the vector borne disease.

In addition, Dr. Tom Frieden of the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that while they are able to reallocate some resources in the short term, that comes at the cost of other ongoing work, including to counter dengue and tick borne viruses, and in HIV as well as flu vaccine research.

Last month President Obama asked Congress to provide $1.8 billion in emergency Zika response funding, but legislators have yet to act on the request.

In the meantime, both Frieden and Fauci said, the more they learn about Zika, including proof that the virus is sexually transmitted, and research showing visible fetal abnormalities in 29 percent of ultrasounds of pregnant women who had been infected, the more concerned they become. While sexual transmission of the virus has been confirmed, how long the virus remains in the semen of men who have been infected remains unknown, Fauci noted.

Frieden, who had just returned from Puerto Rico, where the virus is spreading, described meeting with pregnant women and seeing the need for a broad array of activities to reduce their risks of exposure to the virus. They include distributing screens for windows in regions where they have not previously been used, “prevention kits” for women that include condoms to protect against sexual transmission of the virus, insect repellent and educational material, and answering an unmet need for contraception access on an island where, he said, most pregnancies are unplanned and unintended. All of the women with whom he met were aware and highly concerned about the risks to their children posed by the virus, he said, quoting one who said she would worry about an affected child for the rest of her life, and “even after I am dead.”

“Some things we may be able to do if we have the resources,” he said. “It’s worth everything we can do to protect pregnant women.”

“There is nothing about Zika control that is quick or easy,” Frieden said, adding that only the mosquito bite that spreads the virus is quick, and only wrong answers are easy.

The approaching rainy season when the mosquito that carries it multiplies, he said, could bring hundreds of thousands of Zika infections and thousands of infected pregnant women before the end of the year.

Unknowns that research must address, Fauci said, include questions about the molecular makeup of the virus, about the immune response needed, and appropriate animal models. While Fauci expressed “cautious optimism” that a vaccine against the virus can be developed, and indicated that a candidate could be tested before the end of the year, he emphasized the difference between developing a product to be tested and getting it approved and distributed. That, he said would likely be several years away at best. That work, as well as the CDC’s responses, can’t be completed without resource support “in the form of the supplement the president asked for,” Fauci said.

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