- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2016

Zika is “a bit scarier” than the administration initially thought, officials acknowledged Monday, rattling off a list of alarming discoveries about the mosquito-borne virus that is linked to serious birth defects and debilitating syndromes.

The virus not only has been linked to a surge in babies born with abnormally small heads in Latin America, but it also seems to be causing premature births and eye problems in newborns, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The mosquito breed that typically carries Zika has been found to exist in about 30 states, more than twice than previously thought.

“The more and more we learn, the more and more you get concerned about the scope of what this virus is doing,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases director at the National Institutes of Health.

He said Zika appears to attack the nervous system and stays in the blood of pregnant women and lab monkeys for weeks instead of a matter of days as scientists previously thought.

The Zika virus is circulating in Puerto Rico, and local transmission could hit the U.S. mainland within months. As temperatures climb, the climate becomes more hospitable to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the primary carrier of the virus.

Sizing up the threat, the White House is prodding Congress to approve a $1.9 billion request in emergency funding to fight Zika at home and abroad.

Congressional Republicans applauded the administration last week for taking their advice and shifting $510 million left over from the successful fight against Ebola to Zika, though the White House says it still wants money to combat Zika.

“It is not enough for us to get the job done. It is just a temporary stopgap,” Dr. Fauci said.

Without new funding, he said, “we’re going to have to start raiding other accounts.”

Dr. Fauci said other research at his agency will suffer if that occurs.

Appropriators insist that they are monitoring the problem and are ready to act if needed. They said any additional funds to address the crisis should be provided through the normal appropriations process.

The CDC has reported 346 travel-related cases of Zika in the states and the District of Columbia. U.S. territories have recorded 351 locally acquired cases, mostly in Puerto Rico.

Administration officials say states such as Texas and Florida will be on the front lines of local transmission this summer.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who dropped out of the presidential race, said last week he could support Mr. Obama’s funding request as long as the money is dedicated to Zika alone.

“The most important thing I can do to help get the support of my party, to support this initiative, is to be able to go back to them and say, ‘Not only is this money going to be spent wisely, it’s going to be spent only on this. It’s not going to be a gravy train for all sorts of other initiatives that have nothing to do with Zika,’” Mr. Rubio said after a meeting on Zika last week with state, local and Puerto Rican officials.

Meanwhile, the CDC is urging travelers who return from the hot zone to try to avoid mosquitoes in the U.S. so they don’t set off local outbreaks.

“We really want the traveling public, when they come back from the Caribbean or Latin America, to use repellent for the couple of weeks after they return,” Dr. Schuchat said. “Because if they silently got Zika infection and they get bit by a mosquito in the continental U.S., that mosquito can then spread the virus.”

Dr. Schuchat said the CDC doesn’t expect large outbreaks in the states, based on its experience with similar viruses, though it isn’t taking any chances.

The CDC says pregnant women should defer travel to Brazil and other areas where Zika is spreading. It also cautioned men returning from affected countries to use condoms with their partners because Zika can be spread sexually.

Administration officials said they have shared this advice with the U.S. Olympic Committee ahead of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

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