The Zika virus definitely causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and suffer other brain defects, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday, hoping to erase any doubt about the mosquito-borne illness’ threat to pregnant women and their newborns.
CDC Director Tom Frieden said the findings are “unprecedented.” Never before, he said, have scientists concluded that a mosquito bite can lead to birth defects such as microcephaly.
“This study marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak,” Dr. Frieden said. “It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly. We are also launching further studies to determine whether children who have microcephaly born to mothers infected by the Zika virus is the tip of the iceberg of what we could see in damaging effects on the brain and other developmental problems.”
Scientists who published the findings in The New England Journal of Medicine said they used long-standing criteria to reach their conclusions.
By shifting from a mere hypothesis about Zika to stating that it actually can cause birth defects, they said, officials can be well-equipped to explain its risks and ramp up prevention efforts, including mosquito control and the development of diagnostic tests and a vaccine.
The news will undoubtedly heap pressure on the administration and Congress to gird for the threat, which so far has wreaked havoc in Brazil and Latin American countries.
Zika is circulating in Puerto Rico, and local transmission could hit the U.S. mainland within months, though the CDC has recorded more than 300 travel-related cases in the states and the District of Columbia.
As temperatures climb, the climate becomes more hospitable to the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the virus.
Sizing up the threat, the White House is prodding Congress to take up and pass its $1.9 billion request for emergency funding to fight Zika at home and abroad.
Congressional Republicans applauded the administration last week for taking its advice and shifting $510 million left over from the successful fight against Ebola to its Zika efforts, though the White House says it still wants the new money.
In response, Republicans said Wednesday that they are willing to assess the White House’s request during the regular appropriations process from now until Oct. 1
“No. 1, I think the White House did the right thing by taking our recommendation to use the money that was already there in the pipeline,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “No. 2, we will address the situation through the regular appropriations process as the need arises and our appropriators are looking at how to do just that.”
The House passed a bill late Tuesday that could speed up the development of a vaccine, though the White House called it a “rather meager accomplishment.”
“In some ways, it’s akin to passing out umbrellas in the advance of a potential hurricane,” press secretary Josh Earnest said. “So, an umbrella might come in handy, but it’s going to be insufficient to ensure that communities all across the country are protected from a potentially significant impact.”
Without more funding, the U.S. won’t be able to wipe out more mosquitoes and scientists will not be able to create more rapid tests of the disease.
“So no, I’m not prepared to give Congress credit for that legislation,” he said. “It is a positive step, but it is a far cry from what our public health experts tell us is necessary to prepare for the situation.”