US declares Zika health emergency in Puerto Rico

US declares Zika health emergency in Puerto Rico

The US government has declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico amid a Zika virus epidemic.

The declaration allows the US Department of Health and Human Services to award grants, access emergency funds and temporarily appoint staff where needed.

"This administration is committed to meeting the Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico with the necessary urgency," said department secretary Sylvia Burwell, who travelled to the US territory in late April to evaluate its response to the spread of the virus.

The announcement came hours after Puerto Rico reported 1,914 new cases in the past week, a total of 10,690 since the first one was reported in December.

The mosquito-borne virus has infected 1,035 pregnant women, which is a concern to authorities because Zika has been tied to a severe birth defect known as microcephaly. More than 100 pregnant women infected with Zika in Puerto Rico who have given birth have had healthy babies, officials said.

Puerto Rico reported the first microcephaly case acquired on US soil in May, involving a dead foetus that a woman turned over to health authorities. Since then no microcephaly cases have been reported, but officials say it is only a matter of time.

Puerto Rico governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said he had asked government officials to declare a public health emergency and thanked them for their support.

"Zika poses a hidden threat to future generations of Puerto Ricans and I feel the responsibility to do everything in my power to fight the spread of it," he said.

Mr Garcia recently authorized the use of Bti, an organic larvicide, to fight the spread of Zika after rejecting aerial spraying with the insecticide naled as proposed by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Puerto Rico health secretary Ana Rius said 90 people have been admitted to hospital because of Zika. Officials also say 30 people have been diagnosed with a temporary paralysis condition known as Guillain-Barre that has been linked to Zika.

Health authorities say they believe the number of Zika cases is much higher because eight of 10 people show no symptoms and many do not go to the doctor.

The emergency was declared one day after the US surgeon general visited Puerto Rico and said he expected 25% of Puerto Rico's nearly 3.5 million people would be infected with Zika by the end of the year.

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