President Barack Obama on Monday asked Congress for $1.9 billion to help stem the spread of the Zika virus.
The mosquito-borne disease has been linked to — but not proven to cause — a severe brain defect in newborns. The birth defect, called microcephaly, results in infants having small heads and often involves brain damage.
It’s believed there have been more than 4,100 suspected or confirmed cases of microcephaly in Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak, which has been confined so far to Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Since the Zika epidemic first surfaced in Brazil last spring, the virus has spread to 30 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Health Organization now estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.
Meeting Monday with the nation’s governors, Obama said he hoped to work with them in guarding against an outbreak of the disease in this country. Obama said the $1.9 billion he is requesting would be used for research into new vaccines and better diagnostic tools, more support for Puerto Rico and territories where there are confirmed cases, and funding for mosquito-control programs in southern states such as Florida and Texas at risk of the Zika virus, the Associated Press reported.
Obama also asked for the flexibility to use some of $2.7 million that was approved to fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa but was never used. House Republicans have said that would be the best way to fund a fight against Zika, the news service said.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared before a Congressional panel earlier this month to lobby for Zika funding.
Although first discovered in Uganda in 1947, the Zika virus was not thought to pose serious health risks until last year. In fact, approximately 80 percent of people who become infected never experience symptoms.
But the recent increase in both cases and severe brain birth defects among thousands of newborns in Brazil has prompted health officials to reassess their thinking about Zika and pregnant women.
Last Friday, the CDC advised that healthy newborns of women who traveled in an area affected by the Zika virus within two weeks of delivery, or whose mothers show signs of Zika infection, be checked for infection.
The guidance was based on research indicating — but not proving — that Zika can be passed from mother to child during delivery. The CDC stressed, however, that Zika infection in newborns who contract the virus during delivery is typically mild or without symptoms.
Only two cases of “perinatal” (during delivery) infection of a newborn with the Zika virus have been reported so far, the CDC noted.
“One of these infants was asymptomatic, and the other had thrombocytopenia [a deficiency of blood platelets] and a diffuse rash,” said a team led by Katherine Fleming-Dutra, of the agency’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infections.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, people considered at risk for Zika infection include those who have:
- Traveled to areas during the past four weeks where there’s active transmission of Zika virus. The CDC now lists 30 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean as places with active Zika infection.
- Engaged in sexual contact with a person who has traveled to, or resided in, an area with active Zika virus transmission during the prior three months.
- Developed symptoms suggestive of Zika virus infection during the past four weeks.
There have been no reports to date of Zika virus entering the U.S. blood supply, the FDA has said. But, the risk of blood transmission is considered likely based on the most current scientific evidence of how Zika and similar viruses are spread.
The American Red Cross has asked potential blood donors who have traveled to Zika-affected areas to wait 28 days before giving blood.
For more on Zika virus, and where the virus is endemic, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To see the CDC list of sites where Zika virus is active and may pose a threat to pregnant women, click here.