Chairman Alexander’s Prepared Remarks for Senate Health Committee’s Hearing – “Zika Virus: Addressing the Growing Public Health Threat”

WASHINGTON, February 24 – Below are prepared remarks from Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for today’s hearing – Zika Virus: Addressing the Growing Public Health Threat:

Earlier this month, Senator McConnell hosted a briefing on the Zika virus with Secretary Burwell.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee held a hearing with Dr. Frieden and Dr. Fauci.

So this is the third opportunity that some of us have had to hear more about the virus. And I thank the witnesses for keeping Congress and the public informed.

There are a lot of questions about the Zika virus, so I’d like to run through some of what we know:


The Zika virus was discovered in 1947 and until recently, was thought to cause only mild symptoms, including fever, rash, and joint pain that last for as long as a week. Only one out of 5 people infected actually experience any symptoms.


Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected mosquito of the Aedes species. This is the same mosquito that spreads dengue fever and chikungunya.


The virus can be spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn child. It can also be sexually transmitted. And I want to ask more about that today.


Zika has shown up in numerous South and Central American countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 


Last year, after an outbreak of Zika, Brazil reported a sharp increase in the number of reported cases of a rare birth defect called microcephaly in areas affected by the Zika virus outbreak.


Babies born with microcephaly have smaller heads and often have underdeveloped brains. It is a lifelong condition that can range from mild to severe, and treatment varies for that reason.


Today, there are over 4,000 reported cases of microcephaly in Brazil. More than 500 of those have been confirmed.


In 2014, 147 cases of microcephaly were reported in Brazil. 


In conjunction with an outbreak of the Zika virus, an additional five countries – French Polynesia, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Suriname--have reported an increase in the incidence of cases of microcephaly and/or Guillain-Barré syndrome, a syndrome that attacks the nerves and causes temporary paralysis.


Today there are no reported cases of anyone being infected by a mosquito with Zika in the United States. There are 82 travel related cases in the US, including one in Tennessee, in which individuals become infected with Zika after travelling to an area where Zika is spreading.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also announced yesterday that CDC and state public health departments are investigating 14 new reports of possible sexual transmission of Zika in the United States.


Currently, there is not a vaccine or approved treatment for Zika. There is also no commercially available diagnostic to test for Zika although the CDC and some public health laboratories can test to determine if a patient has the Zika virus. CDC is working to produce and distribute over 1 million diagnostic tests.


Today I’ll be asking about the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, also about how the virus affects young children.


I asked Dr. Frieden at the hearing earlier this month how long a woman who becomes sick with Zika, or travels to a country with Zika, should wait before trying to get pregnant. I’ll be asking if there is any update on that.


I am also interested in hearing about what progress is being made to develop vaccines and diagnostic tests, and how Congress can help support these efforts. 


Dr. Fauci said in previous testimony that it could take 12-15 months to develop a vaccine. 


The World Health Organization (WHO) has turned its attention to controlling mosquitoes.


In Brazil, more than 200,000 soldiers are being deployed to help eliminate standing water but these mosquitoes’ eggs can live for months in a pool of water as small as in a bottle cap.


The WHO reports that mosquito larvae have been found in plates under potted plants, birdbaths, and dog bowls.


Mosquito control is generally a state and local issue, and I am interested in hearing how CDC is working with these partners to support efforts to control mosquito populations in the U.S.


There’s been some discussion about the use of genetically modified mosquitoes.  I am very interested in hearing what the options are on controlling mosquitoes.


I thank the witnesses for being here and look forward to your responses. This is an issue that has the attention of millions of Americans and I hope that we can provide some information today.


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