A top defense official has dashed fears about the ability of the National Guard to protect against the Zika virus, telling a Senate panel he expects Zika to make next to no impact on members of the Guard or the military.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the statements during a discussion with ranking members of both the House and Senate armed services committees.
In May, the Department of Health and Human Services warned states that female mosquitoes carrying the virus could begin going after, and possibly living among, them this summer. The warning came after scientists from a government research lab in Australia published a study showing they had found evidence of Zika in mosquitoes living in Africa and Asia, including one species that is common throughout Europe.
For weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been on high alert about the developing threat. CDC officials also have warned that as much as three-quarters of Americans born since 1948 could be at risk for the virus’s debilitating effects, which include birth defects, such as microcephaly, where a baby is born with a small head.
National Guard units are gearing up for potential action in this case. The CDC recommended that pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant stay away from areas where Zika is present. The CDC also has been urging people to use repellent to prevent mosquito bites.
Army Secretary Eric Fanning issued a memo in May instructing service units that in states where Zika is making its way, “the Defense Department should prepare for possible contingencies where the planned activities of the National Guard are considered to support public health concerns resulting from Zika infection.”
The move means that if women currently serving in the National Guard or the military ever contract Zika, they could be declared Ebola-like sick for months while they recover, a Defense Department official said. Pregnant National Guard members could be held out of service until their babies born. But troop members could be sent out on missions as well, said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Carter’s statement Thursday, however, addressed concerns about Zika actually being seen by U.S. troops. To that end, as part of National Guard plans to battle Zika this summer, the Defense Department is opening a National Guard Family Ebola Recovery Program. “The program is designed to care for National Guard Family Ebola Recovery Program survivors, assess the service member’s readiness and access to health care, engage in military and community awareness campaigns, and coordinate care-related activities with the affected civilian population,” reads the announcement from the National Guard Bureau.
Enrollment in the program costs an estimated $420,000, the notification from the Army Human Resources Command said. And while official said the Defense Department will do what it can to help Guard members sustain their health care, it doesn’t seem to be very generous. The offer includes a $100,000 contribution to the service member’s healthcare program from National Guard Bureau dollars as well as a $500 gift card from the office supply store Office Depot.
Dr. Kathy Keily, HHS’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, told lawmakers that the CDC has not seen a jump in reports of local cases of Zika. She said that was not surprising, given that outbreaks of Zika and other viruses are so rare. “Early detection in Florida would have allowed Zika to be used as a reference point in the NCDC estimates. Where they haven’t been infected with Zika is in regions where the disease is considered very rare or non-existent,” Keily said.
The World Health Organization last month declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency, although a formal global public health emergency declaration requires a recommendation from the U.N. secretary-general.
Gen. Mark Milley, the head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said that the United States still needs more clarity about how dangerous Zika is in West Africa, where the virus was first discovered. Meanwhile, in Europe, authorities are looking to a possible clash with the Russian military if the Zika virus spreads to Russia.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said the first suspected case was reported in a German city and involved a mother who had been out traveling. The potential for local transmission was based on pregnant women who may have been exposed to the virus, Frieden said.
“It appears to be very unlikely that infection in a pregnant woman would spread to the fetus,” Frieden said.