ASM Urges Public Health Actions and Funding to Combat Zika Emergency

Aug. 5, 2016

Washington, DC – August 5, 2016 – Current events linked to the Zika virus make aggressive public health actions and funding to combat this emerging infectious disease more crucial than ever.  Newly reported Zika cases in Florida are the first examples of US infection spread by local mosquitos.  On August 1 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned pregnant women and their partners against visiting a specific area with multiple cases in downtown Miami, an unusual federal advisory concerning a US community.  Today Zika is so prevalent in Puerto Rico that only drastic measures will be able to control the epidemic.  The 2016 Summer Olympics begin today in Rio de Janeiro, attracting large numbers of US athletes and spectators to a nation struggling with significant case numbers of Zika infection.

Despite the intensifying threat to US public health, Congress failed to approve the emergency federal Zika funding requested months ago by the Administration, long before Congress adjourned for summer recess.  The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has repeatedly asked Congress to allocate the additional funding needed to strengthen capabilities against Zika infection and its most serious consequences, particularly birth deformities if pregnant women are infected.

As of July 27, CDC’s ArboNET system had recorded 1,658 Zika cases in the US states and the District of Columbia, with an additional 4,750 in US territories.  Officials expect the actual numbers to be higher, as most infected exhibit no symptoms.  Widespread mosquito borne transmission in Puerto Rico is especially alarming and expected to worsen into the fall.  On July 7, CDC reported that 672 pregnant women in Puerto Rico had tested Zika positive with 34 percent asymptomatic, another sobering reminder that reported cases are underestimating the severity of this public health crisis.  

Before the latest Miami cases, infections in the continental United States had been linked to travel abroad or in people who had sex with a traveler.  Now rapid domestic spread is likely, and public health efforts must be fortified.  Federal funding is needed to expand state and local prevention and mosquito control, improve diagnostics and testing, develop an effective vaccine and boost basic and applied research.  Vaccines are a high R&D priority, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has warned that without additional funding vaccine development will not proceed as quickly or systematically as needed.

The ASM, which represents over 48,000 members in the United States and worldwide, believes that congressional inaction against this emerging threat could have serious consequences for US public health.  Research by multiple stakeholders like CDC, NIH, and academic health centers has already revealed a great deal about the Zika virus, its transmission, and its public health impacts.  However, the latest Miami cases and health concerns over the Olympics reinforce the importance of accelerating efforts to minimize the negative impacts of Zika infection and its spread within the United States.  It is clear that there is a real need for increased funding for not only immediate public health measures like diagnostic testing and systematic mosquito control, but also for accelerated vaccine development.