National Press Club

CDC Director Tom Frieden: Zika crisis demands urgent action

May 26, 2016 | By Julia Haskins | juliaannehaskins@gmail.com

The complete set: Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden admires the National Press Club coffee mug presented to him by NPC President Tommy Burr following his luncheon address to the Club, May 26, 2016. He has a growing collection of NPC coffee mugs, since this is the fourth time he has spoken at a Club luncheon.

The complete set: Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden admires the National Press Club coffee mug presented to him by NPC President Tommy Burr following his luncheon address to the Club, May 26, 2016. He has a growing collection of NPC coffee mugs, since this is the fourth time he has spoken at a Club luncheon.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Halting the spread of the Zika virus worldwide requires urgent action by governments and public health officials, CDC Director Tom Frieden said at a National Press Club luncheon May 26.

Speaking at his fourth Press Club luncheon, Frieden admitted the lack of knowledge about the behavior of the Zika virus, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, makes an efficient response challenging.

“This is not only unexpected, it’s completely unprecedented,” Frieden said, explaining that never before has a mosquito bite been found to cause an infection resulting in birth defects.

It has also been more than 50 years since scientists have identified any pathogen that can cause a birth defect, he said.

As the CDC and other public health agencies work to make sense of Zika, they are also racing against time to prevent a larger outbreak and protect those who have already been infected. This is a critical period, Frieden noted, as Memorial Day weekend historically signals that mosquito season has begun in the U.S.

While scientists and researchers have not had much time to fully delve into the Zika conundrum, they have already made significant progress, Frieden said. He discussed numerous developments that have occurred in less than five months since conclusive evidence linking Zika to microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with smaller than normal skulls, was identified. For example, there is now a rapid test that can be used in urine or blood to detect Zika, and the CDC is working on a new class of non-toxic, food-grade insecticide.

Responding to Zika also requires international collaboration, Frieden said, pointing to the CDC’s Global Rapid Response Team as an example of how countries can cooperate to address public health emergencies. Frieden also praised Congress for funding for the Global Health Security Agenda, which launched around the same time as the height of the Ebola outbreak in 2014. An international effort targeting Zika will ultimately protect U.S. residents, Frieden said.

“We’re in a new world of being able to find and stop threats where they emerge,” he said. “Stopping outbreaks there [means] we don’t have to fight them here.”

Frieden said he foresees a long road ahead toward eradicating Zika, noting that it “isn’t going to be a one-month or one-year problem.” However, he does believe that the public health community has resources at its disposal to take on crises such as Zika.

“When an earthquake hits we understand the need to respond,” Frieden said. “Now imagine if you had the power to stop an earthquake. We together using the tools of public health have the power to stop the health equivalent of many earthquakes that happen around the world.”