Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), well known in health IT circles, has written a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Mathews Burwell expressing concern about the rapidly spreading Zika virus.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika, spread to people through mosquito bites, a global public health emergency, putting in the same category as Ebola. The Zika virus is currently most common in South America, and the infection has been linked to cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains. There have been around 4,000 reported cases of microcephaly in Brazil alone since October, according to news media reports.
In the letter to Secretary Burwell, Sen. Alexander and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) encouraged HHS to fully leverage the tools the department has at its disposal, such as adding the Zika virus to the tropical disease priority review voucher program using the new authority that Congress gave the administration to do so during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. In 2014, when the Ebola scare reached its peak in the U.S., Burwell tapped Karen DeSalvo, M.D., the National Coordinator for Health IT, to serve as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health as part of the Ebola response team.
They write, “[W]e strongly encourage you and your colleagues to apply the lessons learned from previous experiences. …We look forward to hearing from you regarding whether you plan to add Zika to the list of conditions eligible for such vouchers in order to incentivize the timely development of a vaccine to protect families across our nation and the world.”
On Friday, Jan. 29, Alexander announced the committee’s plans to hold a hearing in the near future on the Zika virus, saying, “The spread of the Zika virus in South America and other regions, affecting so many mothers and fathers and children, is heartbreaking and its threat to the United States is of big concern. I’m working with the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies at the Department of Health and Human Services that are monitoring the situation, and Senator Murray and I will very soon hold a hearing to gain a better understanding of how the Congress can support efforts to prevent further spread of the virus and protect families from being affected.”