Washington, D.C. –  Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) today called on the Obama administration to raise the travel alert to level three for Brazil, Colombia and other countries with high levels of Zika infections. His request came during a Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on the science of Zika. A level three travel warning acknowledges high risk to travelers and recommends avoiding all non-essential travel.

Witnesses including Dr. Kacey Ernst of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Arizona, Dr. Daniel Neafsey of the Genomic Center for Infectious Disease at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Dr. Steven Presley of the Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech University testified that stricter travel advisories should be implemented and all non-essential travel to areas with high levels of the Zika virus should be avoided.

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Watch the exchange here.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “These dangers raise serious questions about the administration’s handling of travel alerts.  The CDC has issued only level two alerts for 49 countries and territories, which advise travelers to only ‘practice enhanced precautions.’ They have not issued any level three warnings to ‘avoid nonessential travel,’ as they did during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. 

“The World Health Organization (WHO) in February declared Zika a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ (PHEIC). Such declaration is reserved for a situation that is ‘serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action.’

“Why has the administration not raised the travel alert level for countries with the highest number of Zika infections, such as Brazil and Colombia? Is the administration so worried about attendance at the Olympics in Brazil this summer that they’re willing to endanger American lives by not providing better warnings? At the least, pregnant women should be told to avoid nonessential travel to Brazil and Colombia. Anything less is putting political correctness ahead of the well-being of American women.”

While the most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, the illness has been linked to severe birth defects in pregnant women. Zika has also been linked to serious neurological impacts in some adults.

As of last week, the World Health Organization identified 270,000 suspected cases of the Zika virus across 60 countries and territories. The two countries with the highest number of Zika infections are Brazil and Colombia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) has identified 544 cases in the continental United States, all of which were acquired through travel to an affected area. Over 300 of these cases are pregnant women.