- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2016

The chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will head to Puerto Rico in coming days to get a firsthand look at the U.S. territory’s response to the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease linked to serious birth defects.

CDC officials say the island, already beleaguered by a debt crisis that threatens basic health care services for its 3.5 million residents, has recorded more than 100 cases of infection.

Researchers worry that number could balloon to hundreds of thousands of cases, based on the island’s history with related viruses carried by Zika’s primary vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

CDC Director Tom Frieden will meet with public health officials and emphasize the need to protect pregnant women. That’s because evidence from hard-hit Brazil and other Latin American countries suggests a link between Zika and microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads.

President Obama has requested $1.9 billion from Congress to address the Zika outbreak at home and abroad.

The request includes $250 million to bolster Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, since its funding is capped and the island theoretically cannot respond as easily to emergencies.

Dr. Frieden’s tour will be the administration’s second high-profile visit to the island this year, after Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew met with local officials to discuss the island’s $70 billion debt.

House Republican leaders are forging a response to the debt crisis by March 31. But on Zika, they have told the White House to use leftover Ebola funds before it requests nearly $2 billion more in spending.

Puerto Rico has dealt with outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, a pair of viruses related to Zika.

Dr. Frieden will check in with the CDC’s dengue lab on the island, which is starting to test for Zika.

“For the commonwealth of Puerto Rico as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, a surge in resources is urgently needed,” Dr. Frieden told the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week. “The population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes is widespread on these islands, protective environmental factors such as window screens are not as prominent, and the density of people puts people there at high risk for transmission.”

Zika is not transmitting locally in the 50 states, though travelers returning from Latin America have brought the virus back with them.

Scientists say the dynamic could change as temperatures rise, making conditions more hospitable to disease-carrying mosquitoes in the Southern states.

The CDC said Friday that it would bring state, federal and local officials together April 1 for a one-day summit on the Zika virus at its headquarters in Atlanta.

“Participants will hear the latest scientific knowledge about Zika, including implications for pregnant women and strategies for mosquito control,” the CDC said. “This meeting will also provide an opportunity to increase knowledge of best communications practices and identify possible gaps in preparedness and response at the federal, state, and local levels and help begin to address possible gaps.”

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