Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Thursday recounted some of the more startling experiences he's had as the agency fights the Zika virus, including seeing the tests results that confirmed the virus causes microcephaly, watching mosquitoes that spread it apparently unfazed by a popular insecticide and being told his request for emergency funding would take at least three months.
“My jaw dropped, literally,” he said. “Three months in an epidemic is an eternity.”
The CDC has had to borrow $50 million from other parts of the agency to begin fighting Zika. Some of that came from funds for Ebola, which Frieden said could come roaring back in Africa if the amount isn't repaid in time.
“We can't be letting down our guard in one battle to fight another,” he said.
Frieden spoke at a National Press Club luncheon about the Zika virus, which causes microcephaly and other birth defects. The World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency three months ago.
Also Thursday, the Center for American Progress said 2 million pregnant women in the U.S. are at risk for Zika infection this summer and fall. Already the CDC has identified more than 300 pregnant women in the country who have tested positive.
Frieden said Congress must quickly approve adequate funding to fight the virus. The White House has requested $1.9 billion. The Senate has proposed a $1.1 billion package while the House has put forth a proposal for $622 million. None have been fully approved.
More money is needed to develop better testing to identify Zika infection, further study the effects, work toward a vaccine and find ways to control the mosquito that spreads it, he said.
The mosquito that carries the disease is quite resilient. Many pesticides have been shown ineffective against it and the mosquitoes survive indoors and outdoors. Their eggs can last up to a year and hatch in merely a drop of water.
The CDC could help save many more lives and prevent more chronic diseases if it had the resources it needs, Frieden said.
“When faced with an emergency like this, the greatest emotion has been frustration,” he said. He later added: “Anything we don't do now, we will regret not doing later.”
The threat from Zika is to pregnant women, who should heed warnings to avoid areas where it is spreading. There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympic Games this summer in hard-hit Rio de Janeiro, however, he said. A House representative who chairs the Science, Space and Technology Committee has asked the CDC to urge Americans to "avoid nonessential travel" to Brazil.
The Center for American Progress estimate of Zika's effect in the U.S. includes nearly 492,000 potentially in Texas and more than 271,000 in Florida. Five other eastern states could see more than 100,000 women infected.