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CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, and Dr. Susan Blumenthal, a senior fellow in health policy at New America. Photo by Veronica Zutic

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden and his agency are faced with what he calls an “unprecedented” and “urgent” health threat: the Zika virus. Zika is the first mosquito-transmissible virus that has been shown to cause birth defects, and the first mosquito-borne sexually transmitted disease or infection.

Frieden spoke in Washington, D.C. on July 13 with Dr. Susan Blumenthal, MD, a senior fellow in health policy at New America, on the global ramifications of the spread of Zika virus. More than five months after the president made his initial request for emergency supplemental funding to combat the Zika virus, Congress has failed to provide funding for CDC and other federal agencies to research Zika and bolster prevention efforts. Congress will not revisit efforts to provide Zika funding before the House and Senate reconvene from their summer recess on September 6 at the earliest.

“Our top priority with Zika is to protect pregnant women,” Frieden said, pointing to places like Puerto Rico, where the virus is likely to spread quickly and affect a substantial amount of the population, and Brazil, where travelers will soon be arriving for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

When asked about the threat of Zika virus to Olympic athletes and spectators this summer, Frieden clarified that there is “no public health reason to delay or change the games.” However, he warned that people around the world should be aware that even though they are not experiencing symptoms or effects of the virus now, they can carry the virus that can later infect a developing fetus and cause birth defects like microcephaly.

Frieden emphasized the importance of protecting people from the virus to prevent long-term consequences like birth defects and a congenital Zika syndrome, which he says doctors think are likely to develop. He noted that ministries of health in countries around the world must continue to work closely with the CDC to continue this research, and to quickly and effectively prepare for the outcomes of Zika.

He described Zika virus as a reflection of globalization, urbanization and world travel, and emphasized that countries around the world must prepare for the spread of the virus. He also stressed that action from Congress to fund both Zika and Ebola efforts simultaneously, rather than pulling funding from one to give to the other, was imperative.

“We need to ensure that we go from the pre-Ebola world or no preparedness and no accountability —to the world of today and tomorrow,” Frieden said.

Check out APHA’s Zika page for resources that will help you learn more about the virus.