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Congress Grapples With Zika Virus Peculiarities

WASHINGTON (CN) - Health care officials assured Congress on Wednesday that the United States is ready to fight the Zika virus outbreak, as evidence grows linking the virus to birth defects.

In the past year, the mosquito-borne virus has spread from its home in Africa and Southeast Asia to Brazil, and now threatens most of South America and parts of the southern United States.

Because the virus is tied to microcephaly - a birth defect that causes children to develop abnormally small heads and can lead to developmental disabilities - the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned pregnant women against travelling to countries where Zika is prevalent.

While the connection between Zika and the birth defect is not totally clear, CDC director Tom Frieden testified about findings his organization released today that identified the virus's genetic material in the brain tissue of two infants who died of microcephaly.

"This is the strongest evidence to date that Zika is a cause of microcephaly, but it's still not definitive," Frieden said. "We still need to understand the clinical and epidemiological patterns to make that link definitive."

President Barack Obama asked Congress earlier this week for $1.8 billion in funding to ramp up research and international aid combating the virus' spread.

Addressing two subcommittees of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs today, representatives for the CDC and the National Institutes for Health praised Obama's call for increased funding and assured the committees they would work to discover vaccines, just as they have in past outbreaks.

"First, we are quite literally discovering more about Zika every single day," Frieden said. "We're working around the clock to find out as much as we can, as quickly as we can to inform the public and to do everything that we can do to reduce the risk to pregnant women."

Even with his optimism, Frieden acknowledged Zika presents unique challenges, especially because up to 80 percent of the people who contract the disease will not show any symptoms, making it harder to protect pregnant women from the disease and to stem its flow.

"Zika is new and new diseases can be scary, particularly when they may affect the most vulnerable among us," Frieden said.

Mosquitoes that carry Zika - the same ones that carry dengue fever - are active throughout the day.

They hide indoors, under tables and in other hard-to-reach places, and can bite a large number of people quickly, Freiden said. These factors make it difficult to control mosquito populations, even though Obama's funding request would be used in part to provide grants for states to undertake mosquito-control efforts.

For some, however, the $1.9 billion Obama proposed is not enough. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., lamented the president's larger move away from providing money for global health, as the budget released yesterday called for cuts to such programs.

"In the face of the waves of infectious disease epidemics in recent years, including multidrug resistant tuberculosis, West Nile virus, Ebola and now Zika, the administration's habitual disregard of the increasing danger from infectious diseases is simply inexplicable," Smith said at the hearing.

Smith added that he was "very optimistic" Congress could reach an agreement on legislation that would pour money into research of tropical diseases, even beyond Zika.

Alongside initiatives to control mosquito populations, federal agencies have also ramped up efforts to begin production of a Zika vaccine and reliable test, according to testimony from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci is optimistic a Zika vaccine could vault the required procedural hurdles by the end of 2017 - "rocket speed" for a vaccine, he said. Fauci cautioned, however, that this accelerated timeline could be in jeopardy if the outbreak unexpectedly stops, as happened with Ebola last year.

Even if the outbreaks persist, and the vaccine gets quicker-than-usual approval, roadblocks could still arise if the government is not able to find a pharmaceutical company to produce the vaccine, Fauci said.

Such a setback occurred when looking for a vaccine for West Nile virus, as no company saw the vaccine as profitable enough to move forward with.

"That is frustrating for us because we think in terms of what's good for the public health, the global health, and sometimes when you get involved in things that are profit developing, that comes in and gets in the way of that," Fauci said.

Rep. Daniel Donovan, R-N.Y., quipped we should feel "blessed that there is profit in the Zika virus," drawing laughs from those in the hearing room.

While Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Fla., floated the idea of legislation to encourage pharmaceutical companies to team up with the government on vaccine production, Fauci said preliminary talks with the companies has indicated they would be willing to help on a Zika virus cure.

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