WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2016 —
Defense Department experts who have experience working with the Zika virus have been asked to support the Department of Health and Human Services in its efforts related to the mosquito-borne disease, the Pentagon press secretary said today.
In a briefing with defense reporters, Peter Cook said the department has been asked to support HHS in its efforts to convene experts and stakeholders, specifically in the research area.
“This is an area where the DoD has done some research in the past,” he added, “and I think some of that expertise will be brought to this effort. We'll be supporting HHS in whatever way we can.”
Travelers to the United States from countries where mosquitoes carry the virus could bring the disease here, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel alert for people traveling to regions and countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
Local transmission of Zika virus has not been identified in the continental United States, CDC officials said, but limited local transmission, rather than widespread transmission, of Zika could occur.
Cook said Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work attended a meeting yesterday that President Barack Obama convened at the White House with leaders of his health and national security teams.
Other attendees included Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
The experts discussed the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses in the Americas and steps being taken to protect the American public, according to a White House summary of the meeting.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said Zika virus spreads to people through mosquito bites. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, or red eyes.
The illness usually is mild, with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon, CDC officials said.
In May, the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert about the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. That outbreak, CDC officials said, led to reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome and women giving birth to babies with birth defects and having “poor pregnancy outcomes.”
In response, CDC issued the travel alert.
Guillain-Barre is a rare disorder in which the immune system damages nerve cells, and CDC will conduct a study in Brazil to determine if a relationship exists between Zika virus infection and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
At the White House, the experts briefed Obama on factors that could affect the potential spread of Zika virus in the United States, and on travel advisories and guidance for domestic health care providers who care for pregnant women.
Obama also was briefed on the potential economic and developmental impacts of Zika virus spreading in the Western Hemisphere.
During the meeting, the White House summary said, Obama emphasized the need to accelerate research efforts to make better diagnostic tests available, to develop vaccines and therapeutics, and to make sure that all Americans have information about Zika virus and steps they can take to protect themselves from infection.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)