Just two years after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scrambled to respond to cases of Ebola in the United States, the federal organization is now admitting it initially underestimated the threat posed by the Zika virus in the United States, leaving one expert to call for a major restructuring of the organization.
News of the Zika virus emerged earlier this year, when cases in Brazil, particularly among pregnant women, were reported in increasing numbers. While the impact of Zika on adults and children is still being studied, medical experts have concluded the virus causes shrinking of the skulls in unborn babies, which leads to other serious health challenges.
At the start of the year, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, implored everyone to remain calm, stressing that mosquitoes carrying Zika could appear in the U.S. but the threat here is much lower than in Latin America.
Now, as the Obama administration presses for a $1.9 billion emergency response to Zika, the CDC’s Zika preview is much more serious.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat.
For experts, that big of s shift is unacceptable.
“That’s not the kind of quote that you want from a government agency that is charged with protecting the citizens from infectious diseases,” said Dr. Tom Borelli, who earned degrees in microbiology and biochemistry and frequently writes on the impact of a bloated federal government and is now calling for Congress to restructure the CDC.
He says getting caught unprepared is becoming routine for the CDC.
“The CDC should not be surprised about epidemics. First it was Ebola in 2014. Now in 2016 we have the Zika virus. Who knows what’s next?” said Borelli, who says the CDC has evidence as early as 2008 that Zika could be transmitted through sexual activity.
Borelli says the CDC started giving a more sober assessment of the Zika threat when new studies showed the mosquitoes carrying the disease could migrate to 40 of the 50 states. He says a more focused agency would have been on top of this but the CDC has too many unnecessary irons in the fire.
“The CDC has been suffering its own disease of mission creep. They’ve gotten into everything from salt, e-cigarettes, alcohol, guns, football injuries. You name it, they’re doing it. But they forgot about one of founding principles on which they were created, which is to protect us from infectious diseases. They took the eye off the ball,” said Borelli, who notes the CDC receives about seven billion dollars a year from taxpayers.
So what would have been a competent response?
“First of all, they would have known that it would represent a public health risk if it did get to the United States,” said Borelli. “Then, kind of like Ebola, what you do is make sure you can keep it contained and help Brazil out to keep the disease contained there. And you implement procedures and methodologies to contain the mosquitoes. But they didn’t.”
He says the same unpreparedness is seen in other health concerns.
“A recent document came out that showed that the CDC sent a memo to their staff that some of these kids coming over the border through Mexico are carrying tuberculosis. here’s another infectious disease that we used to have a handle on. Yet the CDC has its own private emails warning its staff but not the rest of the United States about what’s going on,” said Borelli.
Borelli says Congress needs to force the CDC to get back to its original mission through the power of the purse.
“You cut the budget and you have them focus on infectious diseases. They’ve gotten a little bit lazy. Once upon a time, we had really controlled infectious diseases. But now we’re getting these exotic diseases from Africa just because of worldwide travel. This is the focus that they really should be on,” said Borelli.
He fully expects any effort to shrink the CDC back down to size to be met with fierce protest from Democrats and the media as well as Democratic demands that the solution to CDC ineptness is to provide more taxpayer funding.
“That’s how we got into this mess. Every issue they throw money at it to distract it from its core mission,” said Borelli.
Borelli does believe the CDC should continue to exist as way to keep an eye on national and global trends regarding infectious diseases. But he says that’s all it should do.
“If that’s all they did, they’d be a lot better at it,” said Borelli.