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Lawmakers Demand Obama Raise Zika Travel Warning to Highest Level

Seventeen members of the House, including the Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman, are urging President Obama to raise the alarm about the Zika virus.

As of the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers, there are 820 cases of the mosquito-borne disease in the United States. One is a “laboratory-acquired case,” while the rest are travel-related. Eleven cases were sexually transmitted by someone who was infected abroad and returned.

There are 1,860 known cases in U.S. territories, most of them from local transmission of the virus.

There are three types of CDC travel notices: level one means practice usual precautions, level two means practice enhanced precautions, and level three means avoid nonessential travel.

The alerts are broken down by country; Zika is now found in dozens of countries, mostly in the Americas and Oceania. One African country, Cape Verde, has cases of the virus. The CDC is only at alert level two for the summer Olympics in Rio.

In the letter led by Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), GOP lawmakers including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) cited a hearing last month at which experts advised stricter travel warnings — including a bump-up to level three.

“If Americans continue to believe it is safe to travel to countries where the Zika virus is rampant, more will return home with infections,” the lawmakers wrote. “This increases the risks for all of us, whether we travel abroad or not, because if a mosquito bites a person who has carried Zika into the U.S., that mosquito can infect every other person it bites.”

They cited the open letter to the World Health Organization from 150 medical professionals asking that the Olympics be moved or postponed because of the risk.

“Our greater concern is for global health. The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before. An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic. Should that happen to poor, as-yet unaffected places (e.g., most of South Asia and Africa) the suffering can be great. It is unethical to run the risk, just for Games that could proceed anyway, if postponed and/or moved,” stated that letter.

The WHO, which has a long collaboration with the International Olympic Committee, argued in response that putting off the Rio games wouldn’t “significantly alter” the virus’ spread. The WHO, though, has declared Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

“This new manifestation of the Zika virus includes many unknowns, as experts are still unsure about something as fundamental as whether newly hatched mosquitoes are born with Zika, or if the insects carry the virus only after biting an infected person,” the House lawmakers wrote to Obama. “The potential impact of the Zika virus on Americans’ health and welfare could be profound.”

The American Red Cross, they noted, has put restrictions on blood donations from people who have traveled to countries on the Zika list.

“Despite these concerns, and the fact that there still remains much about the Zika virus that deserves study, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued only Level Two travel alerts, which advise travelers only to ‘practice enhanced precautions.’ It has not issued any Level Three warnings to ‘avoid nonessential travel,’ as it did with the Ebola virus in West Africa,” they continued.

“U.S. residents, men and women, pregnant or otherwise, need their government to provide accurate information about the potential risks of traveling to countries where the Zika virus is spreading. Given the risks associated with the Zika virus, we request that you immediately raise the travel warnings to Level 3 for Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Martinique and Honduras, and other countries as appropriate.”