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More work lies ahead to fight Zika, other threats: CDC chief

Thomas Frieden director of the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attends a press conference in San Juan

(Copyright Reuters 2016)

CHICAGO – A year ago, the mosquito-borne Zika virus was only beginning to reveal itself as a threat for pregnant women and their unborn babies.

Since then, AMERICAN officials have issued 60 travel alerts together with the guidance for athletes and tourists who travel to the Olympic games in Rio. They have also deployed more than 1,000 experts to Puerto Rico and elsewhere, tested more than 147,000 lab specimens, initiated 25 the most important studies and published in over 230 scientific publications.

And the work is not done, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have a lot more to do to control both Zika and diseases spread by this mosquito,” Frieden told Reuters in an interview.

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Frieden, appointed by President Barack Obama for the execution of the CDC in 2009, will hand his resignation on Jan. 20, the day of the President-elect ‘Donald Trump’ s inauguration.

The former New York City commissioner for health will not say what he intends the following. He did his wish list for the new president and the Congress, which contains several items, not least of which is a public health emergency fund.

“We have dealt with Ebola, H1N1 influenza, MERS, fungal meningitis. We are working now with the flu and drug-resistant bacteria,” he said.

And then there was Zika, the first ever by a mosquito-borne virus shown to be capable of causing birth defects. The virus has spread to more than 60 countries and regions, since the current outbreak was detected last year in Brazil.

“We don’t know when the next global health threat will come. We do not know where it will come from. We don’t know what the pathogen and it will be, but we are 100 percent sure that there is a following,” he said.

Frieden said the U.S. health officials must continue to warn pregnant women about the risks of Zika and the need to protect themselves, avoid travel to places where the virus is active.

Scientists also need to continue ongoing studies on the long-term effects of Zika exposure. In addition to microcephaly, a severe congenital anomaly characterized by an abnormally small head size, fetal exposure to Zika is linked to vision and hearing problems, severe irritability, difficulty swallowing, seizures, and hypertonia or extremely stiff muscles.

“It is a particularly complex infection,” he said.

Better diagnostics are also needed, he said, together with the more effective pesticides and other pest control methods.

THE FINANCING OF THE FIGHT

It took nine months of political wrangling, for the AMERICAN legislators to approve $1.1 billion in emergency funds to fight Zika. Health experts say that the delay was harmful to the AMERICAN fight against the virus.

This problem can be addressed through a proposed Rapid Reserve Fund that can be used in the event of an infectious disease emergency, Frieden said.

A $300 million reserve fund is included in the House version of the fiscal 2017 budget, but in December, Congress passed a stop-gap funding bill that runs through March.

“I would hope that April will come, if a budget is passed, it will include the Quick Reserve Fund plan that was outlined in the House bill, which would ideally also be part of the spending authority that would allow the government to act quickly in an emergency,” Frieden said.

Although Trump has not said much about the subject, he did just the public health of workers as being exempt from the hiring freeze he has planned for the first 100 days of his presidency.

“It’s certainly encouraging,” Frieden said, adding that it is a reflection of a recognition of the public health, such as public safety, it is about keeping Americans safe.”

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