Senators Carper, Johnson Seek Information on DHS, CDC Response to Threat Posed by Zika Virus

WASHINGTON – In response to the recent identification of multiple cases of the dangerous “Zika” virus in the United States, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent letters to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden asking for more information about federal efforts to address the potential threat posed by this virus.

“The reports of the spread of this virus, and the debilitating and life threatening conditions that it may be causing, are very concerning – especially considering the potential threat it poses to expectant mothers and their unborn children,” Sen. Carper said. “Just like with our response to Ebola, our response to Zika must be an all-hands-on-deck effort. It is also important that the federal government continue to explore any possible links between Zika and other serious maladies. Federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control must coordinate their efforts closely with state and local officials, and must work to provide the general public with the best information available. I hope we take the same approach with Zika as we did with Ebola and work to stop the spread of this virus in its tracks.”

“The Zika virus has left tragedy in its wake, and while I appreciate that federal agencies are beginning to focus on the emerging threat of the virus, more must be done,” Sen. Johnson said. “We need to ensure that federal agencies are working closely together and with the international community to stop its rapid spread. My committee will keep a close watch on how federal agencies are responding to the threat of this virus.”

Since last May, the Zika virus, originally believed to cause minor physical symptoms such as fever, has spread at an alarming rate throughout a number of Central and South American countries, as well as Puerto Rico. This recent outbreak has coincided with a large uptick in cases of microcephaly, a developmental condition in which affected children are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. Though no official connection has yet been made between the Zika virus and microcephaly, both Brazilian officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified several cases where children born with microcephaly also tested positive for the Zika virus. 

The text of both letters are below and pdfs can be found here and here

Dear Mr. Secretary:

As you well know, over the last several weeks, multiple cases of the dangerous “Zika” virus have been identified in the United States. We write to better understand what Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is doing to address the spread of the virus and to prepare our country, including state and local public health officials, for any potential outbreak.

Since last May, the Zika virus has spread at an alarming rate throughout a number of Central and South American countries, as well as Puerto Rico. For decades, this virus was believed to cause minor physical symptoms, such as a fever, without much evidence of more severe or life-threatening effects.  However, this recent outbreak has coincided with a large uptick in cases of microcephaly, a developmental condition in which affected children are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.

Though no official connection has yet been made between the Zika virus and microcephaly, it is our understanding that both Brazilian officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified several cases where children born with microcephaly also tested positive for the Zika virus.  It is important that the CDC, in partnership with the international community, continue to study any possible links between the two afflictions, and provide the general public with the best information available to avoid contracting Zika or developing microcephaly.

While it appears that the infected individuals here in the United States contracted the virus while traveling abroad, and that the virus is not spreading locally, that may not remain the case. The Aedes species of mosquito, which transmits the virus, is prevalent in a large portion of this country so it may only be a matter of time before the number of infections increases here at home.

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. However, we believe more can and should be done to enhance preparedness and ascertain the nature of the threat Zika poses to our country.  

To this end, and in light of President Obama’s call for urgent action on this matter, we ask that you provide the following information no later than February 11, 2016. 

  • A description of any plans, discussions or documents pertaining to the Department’s coordination with other federal entities, particularly through the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, in tracking the potential spread of Zika in the United States.
  • A description of the Department’s other current and planned activities, research, policies or programs in support of federal efforts to prepare for, mitigate against, respond to and recover from a potential outbreak of Zika;
  • A description of resources and programs currently made available by the Department to state and local officials to raise awareness of, prepare for, mitigate against, respond to and recover from a potential Zika outbreak in the U.S.; and
  • An explanation of the criteria and decision-making process that will be used to determine whether to screen passengers for Zika at U.S. ports of entry.

We would appreciate it if you would keep us updated on any further progress or new developments on this rapidly evolving issue.

The text of the letter to the CDC is below: 

Dear Dr. Frieden:

As you well know, over the last several weeks, multiple cases of the dangerous “Zika” virus have been identified in the United States. We write to better understand what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is doing to address the spread of the virus and to prepare our country, including state and local public health officials, for any potential outbreak.

Since last May, the Zika virus has spread at an alarming rate throughout a number of Central and South American countries, as well as Puerto Rico. For decades, this virus was believed to cause minor physical symptoms, such as a fever, without much evidence of more severe or life-threatening effects. However, this recent outbreak has coincided with a large uptick in cases of microcephaly, a developmental condition in which affected children are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.

Though no official connection has yet been made between the Zika virus and microcephaly, it is our understanding that both Brazilian officials and the CDC have identified several cases where children born with microcephaly also tested positive for the Zika virus.  It is important that the CDC, in partnership with the international community, continue to study any possible links between the two afflictions, and provide the general public with the best information available to avoid contracting Zika or developing microcephaly.

While it appears that the infected individuals here in the United States contracted the virus while traveling abroad, and that the virus is not spreading locally, that may not remain the case. The Aedes species of mosquito, which transmits the virus, is prevalent in a large portion of this country so it may only be a matter of time before the number of infections increases here at home.

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. However, we believe more can and should be done to enhance preparedness and ascertain the nature of the threat Zika poses to our country.

To this end, and in light of President Obama’s call for urgent action on this matter, we ask that you provide the following information no later than February 11, 2016:   

  • A description of how the CDC plans to work with state and local health officials to develop a national Zika surveillance strategy for humans and mosquitos, including the mechanisms used to execute the strategy, the estimated timeline for implementation, and any planned coordination with other Federal entities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Please include any information developed to date for this strategy and any planned federal efforts for mosquito control in affected areas;
  • A description of current and planned future assistance the CDC is providing to Brazil and other impacted countries, as well as Puerto Rico;
  • A description of resources and programs currently available to state and local health officials to address a potential future Zika outbreak;
  • The CDC’s estimates of the likelihood and potential scale of a Zika outbreak occurring in the United States; and,
  • A description of any additional coordination, research (including for medical countermeasures), assistance or public awareness activities CDC plans to undertake to further prepare for the possibility of a Zika outbreak in the United States.

 Thank you for your leadership and attention to this important issue.  As your work continues, we ask that you please keep us updated on the spread of the Zika virus in the United States and its impacts on our communities.