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In the News

CDC: Zika causes microcephaly, other fetal anomalies

CDC scientists in a study published Wednesday confirmed that the Zika virus causes microcephaly and other severe brain defects in fetuses, the Los Angeles Times' "Science Now" reports ("Science Now," AP/Los Angeles Times, 4/13).

While Zika has been thought to be linked with microcephaly, new CDC research published in the New England Journal of Medicine establishes more conclusive evidence that there is a causal relationship between Zika and microcephaly (Sullivan, The Hill, 4/13).

Background

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that has spread across Latin America over the past year. Researchers recently learned that Zika can also be transmitted through sexual activity. The virus is not easily diagnosed, and it does not have a cure or vaccine. It was suspected to be linked to the birth defect microcephaly, a condition in which an infant is born with an abnormally small head and brain. The condition is fatal for some infants, while others experience permanent disabilities.

Officials in Brazil and Honduras have issued guidance recommending that women avoid pregnancy. El Salvador's recommendation is that women not get pregnant until 2018. However, many countries in Latin America restrict access to contraception and often ban abortion. In addition, women have been advised to protect themselves against mosquitos, but insect repellant can be unaffordable for low-income women.

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak and its suspected link to a congenital condition in infants a public health emergency of international concern. Separately, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement directing nations affected by the Zika virus to remove bans on access to reproductive health care services (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/7).

CDC confirms Zika's link to birth defects

According to CDC, traces of the Zika virus have been found in the amniotic fluid, brain tissue and spinal fluid of infants born with microcephaly ("Science Now," AP/Los Angeles Times, 4/13).

CDC Director Tom Frieden said CDC's new research "marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak," adding, "It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly." CDC said while Zika increases the odds of a fetus developing microcephaly, Zika-infected fetuses still could be unaffected by the virus (Sullivan, The Hill, 4/13).

Frieden noted that CDC would begin further research to determine whether Zika causes other fetal brain anomalies. The agency also will examine how many pregnant women infected with the virus have an affected fetus, and whether affected infants experience additional brain or developmental issues later in life.

CDC officials said the agency's guidance on preventing Zika transmission will remain the same (Steenhuysen/Berkrot, Reuters, 4/13). However, Sonja Rasmussen, director of CDC's division of public health information, said the agency's messaging on Zika "will now be more direct." According to "Science Now," CDC hopes new messaging about the virus will help further encourage U.S. residents to take precautions against Zika ("Science Now," AP/Los Angeles Times, 4/13).

GOP leaders say House is working on Zika funding

In related news, conservative leaders in Congress on Wednesday signaled some willingness to provide additional funding for Zika response efforts (Sullivan, The Hill, 4/13).

Background

The Obama administration in February requested from Congress more than $1.8 billion to combat the Zika virus globally and in the United States, but the House has yet to act on the request. A senior administration official last week said the administration would transfer more than $500 million in funding allocated to combating the Ebola virus to Zika response efforts (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/7).

According to The Hill, federal health officials said they are not expecting a widespread outbreak of the virus in the United States. However, in a recent call for additional funding, CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said mosquitos carrying the virus are estimated to be in about 30 states, up from the 12 states originally identified (Sullivan, The Hill, 4/13).

Lawmakers voice openness

On Wednesday, House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said conservative leaders in the House are working on a supplemental funding bill that would allocate additional funds for federal Zika response efforts (Ferris, The Hill, 4/13). However, he noted that the bill might not include the amount of funding the administration has requested.

Separately, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) on Wednesday acknowledged that Congress must approve funding above the recently shifted Ebola funds. Noting that he has spoken with conservative House leaders and federal officials about a supplemental spending package, Cole said, "We do need to do something in the foreseeable future, I would think before the end of the fiscal year."

Also on Wednesday, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Congress likely will locate funding this year. Upton said he has discussed the issue several times with HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell (Ferris, The Hill, 4/13).

Congress approves bill to add Zika to FDA's priority review voucher program

In other related news, the House on Tuesday by voice vote approved a bill (S 2512) that would incentivize Zika drug development by adding the virus to a list of tropical diseases included in FDA's priority review voucher program.

According to Reuters, the priority review program incentivizes drugmakers to develop treatments for diseases that might not otherwise generate significant profit for a manufacturer. Under the program, drugmakers receive a voucher granting them an accelerated review by FDA for any drug developed for one of the diseases listed. Drugmakers also can sell the voucher to other manufacturers.

The Senate approved the measure. Katie Hill, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama likely will sign the bill. However, she said while the bill represents a "small step" in addressing Zika, it "is ultimately insufficient on its own since it doesn't provide the $1.9 billion in funding that our public health experts have said is needed right now to prepare Americans for the imminent local transmission of Zika in this country" (Clarke/Morgan, Reuters, 4/12).