Zika virus: Amid uncertainty, public health experts urge caution

Public health officials told a Senate committee Wednesday morning that much remains unknown about the Zika virus and that healthcare providers should continue to err on the side of caution.

"We're learning more every day, but there's much more to learn and much more to do," Anne Schuchat, M.D., principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.

Schuchat suggested public officials continue to cooperate with international partners to facilitate effective communication while the threat remained. Meanwhile, the CDC is currently investigating 14 reports of possible Zika transmission through sex, according to the New York Times. All cases involve women in the continental United States who had sex with men who had visited affected nations, according to the article. While the agency did not specify how many cases involved pregnant women, it emphasized its recommendation that anyone returning from an affected country use condoms or not have intercourse throughout the pregnancy.

During the hearing, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also responded to inquiries about evidence linking recent cases of microcephaly in infants to the virus. "Evidence is accumulating," Fauci said, and while the cohort studies that would establish definitive proof of the link are still ongoing, "I believe that when we finish… we will be able to say that it's definitive."

As for how hospitals and healthcare providers should respond, Schuchat recommended that organizations ask patients for their travel histories to assess their potential risk of having contracted the disease, as well as make sure to inform pregnant patients of travel risks connected with Zika.

Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) also used the hearing to call on policymakers to reduce barriers to reproductive health and sexual violence resources. Murray spoke in opposition to Congressional Republicans' recent statement that the White House should use unspent Ebola aid rather than the $1.8 billion in new funding it requested.

"We need to both finish the job of responding to the Ebola crisis" and continue to safeguard against Zika, Murray said. "Families' health and safety should not be a zero sum game."

To learn more:
- read the Times article
- stream the hearing (video)