- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Obama administration says it doesn’t expect the Zika virus to blanket whole states if and when mosquitoes begin to spread the virus on the U.S. mainland, though it wants state officials to map outbreaks so locals can protect themselves.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded nearly 700 travel-related cases in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, including nearly a dozen through sexual transmission. Yet the agency expects Zika to circulate on its own this summer, when Aedes mosquitoes flourish and start biting.

In a conference call, CDC officials said transmission in the continental U.S. should be “geographically limited” to relatively small areas, compared with Latin America and the Caribbean.

The CDC has recorded more than 1,300 locally acquired cases in the U.S. territories, mainly in Puerto Rico, and an outbreak in Brazil has been linked to an uptick in the rate of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.

Local transmission will most likely hit Texas, Florida and other states along the Gulf of Mexico, based on previous outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, which are ferried by the same type of mosquito as Zika.

But Zika is the first mosquito-borne illness to be linked to birth defects, and it has never hit the U.S. mainland before, officials said.

“There’s a lot we still don’t know about Zika virus,” said Peggy Honein, a CDC epidemiologist.

The agency urged local officials Friday to report positive Zika tests right away and determine whether the infection is related to travel or sexual transmission. If those can be ruled out, local surveillance teams should monitor family members and surrounding households to see if the virus spreads.

The CDC said it is issuing fact sheets in multiple languages to make sure people who don’t speak English are aware of Zika and ways to avoid mosquito bites.

The government wants to be prepared for the emerging threat, particularly after the Ebola scare of 2014, when the death of a Liberian man at a Texas hospital exposed gaps in reporting and forced states to scramble to set up quarantine rules.

Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director at International SOS, a company that advises clients on global medical and security issues, said the government seems to be ahead of the private sector in its response to Zika.

“I would have to say that typically, on any issue, the government tends to lag behind, just because of the bureaucracy,” he said.

He cited a February report in the Military Times that said pregnant family members of Defense Department employees or active-duty personnel stationed in affected areas could relocate voluntarily.

Private-sector clients, meanwhile, are still trying to hammer out policies that protect pregnant women and other employees, while remaining competitive in their respective markets.

“What they all want to know is, ‘What is the benchmark, what is everyone else in our sector doing?’” Dr. Quigley said.

While the federal government outlines its policy, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have not agreed on the amount of funding needed to prepare for Zika and implement the administration’s plans.

President Obama in February requested nearly $2 billion to combat the virus at home and abroad, yet congressional Republican leaders have forged plans that offer much less.

The Senate approved $1.1 billion in emergency funding that isn’t offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, and the House moved to take $622 million from the lingering Ebola response in West Africa and other health accounts to address the emerging threat.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, urged negotiators from both chambers to fund what Mr. Obama requested.

“As you know, I supported fully funding the fight against Zika with emergency funds to the amount of $1.9 billion, which was calculated by experts in federal public health agencies as the appropriate amount of funds to successfully protect the public health of our country against the imposing threat of Zika,” Mr. Rubio wrote Thursday in a letter to all 33 conferees. “I urge you to consider these specific requests as you negotiate the final legislation through this conference as quickly as possible.”

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