- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2016

A large number of Americans have heard little or nothing about the Zika virus, according to a new poll Thursday that shows found most people in the U.S. are not terribly concerned about an outbreak here.

The lack of awareness contrasts with Washington, where the Obama administration is preparing for the worst, and has requested billions of dollars to try to push development of a vaccine and to target the mosquito blamed for spreading the virus.

“We’re doing everything we can to speed that up,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins told Senate appropriators on Thursday, though he said a vaccine probably won’t be generally available until 2018.

Just 18 percent of Americans in an Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey say they’ve heard a lot about Zika, which has been linked to serious birth defects in Latin American countries and a syndrome that can cause paralysis.

The virus has also been detected in Puerto Rico and some sexually transmitted cases have been recorded in the U.S., and it could puncture deeper into the mainland in coming months.

Yet Americans are not worried, with nearly half of those aware of the disease saying they are “only a little” or “not at all” fearful a large number of cases in the coming year.

Many Americans also are unaware that the disease can be spread through sexual contact, the survey found, or don’t know that it has been linked to birth defects.

Those polled were split over the U.S.’s ability to respond to the virus, overall. While 46 percent felt somewhat confident in its ability, about a quarter each said they were “not at all” confident or “extremely/very” confident.

The domestic response is at the heart of an intensifying fight on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have backed the White House’s request for $1.9 billion in new money to fight Zika.

The White House said Wednesday it will reluctantly transfer $510 million from the Ebola fight and $79 million from other accounts to prop up research into a better diagnostic test and vaccine for Zika and bolster efforts to eradicate the pesky mosquito that carries the virus.

Top Republicans had pressed for the shift in funds for months, rejecting the administration’s pleas for new money and saying the Ebola account could be tapped, though the White House said it still wants $1.9 billion to fight Zika and replenish the Ebola account.

Aid groups told Congress on Thursday that economic growth in Liberia might not return to pre-Ebola levels until 2020, and new health centers will be of little good if patients cannot traverse the country’s muddy, crumbling roads, as West Africa copes with a series of flare-ups in the aftermath of the main outbreak that killed 11,000 from December 2013 to late 2015.

Senate Democrats used their testimony to their push for more funding.

“We need to continue to do engaged and purposeful oversight, and we need to continue to invest in strengthening the public health systems in West Africa, or we will see Ebola reemerge as a major global threat,” said Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, after the hearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee’s panel on Africa and global health.

Witnesses who testified before the subcommittee were reluctant to inject themselves into the funding debate, however, citing their lack of involvement in the Zika fight.

“It’s a bit of a moral maze,” said Alan Knight, chairman of the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group. “But if the question is, ‘Have we done enough to stop Ebola happening Liberia, have we done enough to create the right momentum toward economic recovery in Liberia?’ The answer is no.”

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