Top health officials expressed heightened concern about the threat posed to the US by the zika virus, saying the mosquito that spreads it is now present in about 30 states and hundreds of thousands of infections could appear in Puerto Rico.
At a White House briefing, they stepped up pressure on the Republican-led Congress to pass approximately $1.9bn in emergency funding for zika preparedness that the Obama administration requested in February.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” said Anne Schuchat, a deputy director at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“And so while we absolutely hope we don’t see widespread local transmission in the continental US, we need the states to be ready for that.”
Zika, linked to numerous cases of the birth defect micocephaly in Brazil, is spreading rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The White House said last week in the absence of the emergency funds it will redirect $589m, mostly from money already provided by the US Congress to tackle the ebola virus, to prepare for zika before it begins to emerge in the continental US.
Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said if Congress does not provide emergency zika funding, US officials likely would be forced to redirect money currently dedicated for research into malaria, tuberculosis and a universal flu vaccine.
“I don’t have what I need right now,” said Dr Fauci.
Hopefully the funding crimp will never reach a point where the stopgap money runs out, but if it does, he said, “we’ll have to start raiding other accounts, and very important research in other diseases is going to suffer, and suffer badly”.
Schuchat said Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that primarily transmits the virus, is present in about 30 states, rather than 12 as previously thought.
Dr Fauci said it appears the first zika vaccine candidate is on target to enter initial clinical trials in September.
Dr Schuchat declined to forecast the number of zika infections that could occur in the US. While she said she did not expect large outbreaks, she added: “We can’t assume we’re not going to have a big problem.”
Dr Schuchat said zika is likely to be a problem during much of a pregnancy, not just not just during the first trimester as previously believed. As Brazil prepares to host the Olympic games in August, the CDC has recommended pregnant women avoid traveling to the country.
“We also want people to know that travel to the area may lead to ‘silent’ infection and that, following infections, it’s important to take precautions during sex not to spread the virus,” said Dr Schuchat.
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