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U.S. Public Health Officials: Zika Is Much Scarier Than We Originally Thought

The Zika virus is a far bigger threat to U.S. public health than originally thought.

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The Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects, is a much greater threat in the United States than American public health officials originally thought.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially believed the Aedes species mosquitoes that spread the virus are only present in 12 states. At a White House press briefing Monday, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat revised that number to 30 states. The disease can also be spread through sexual contact.

“Most of what we’ve learned is not reassuring,” said Schuchat. “Everything we know about this virus seems to be scarier than we initially thought.”

She said Zika can also cause birth defects beyond microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head and brain are too small. Additionally, Schuchat said, it can cause problems with a developing baby’s eyes and its maturity in the womb.

“The more and more you learn the more and more you get concerned,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at the same briefing. “This is a very unusual virus that we can’t even pretend to know … everything we need to know.”

Fauci called on Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency spending to fight the virus. Last week, Obama administration officials said they were allocating $589 million — including $510 million initially earmarked to fight Ebola — toward programs to stop the spread of Zika in the United States.

Speaking earlier Monday on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal,” Schuchat said the American public should not hold its breath on a vaccine to prevent the disease, which is rooted in Africa and has already spread to the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and South America. She said it would take at least two years to find a drug that can block Zika.

At the White House, Schuchat said she is especially concerned about Puerto Rico, where there could be “hundreds of thousands” of cases. The CDC has sent prevention kits that include condoms and mosquito repellant to the U.S. commonwealth. She also cautioned about travel to places the virus is present, including Brazil, where the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held later this year.

Schuchat declined to estimate how many Zika cases there could be in the continental U.S. But her comments, combined with Fauci’s, represent the most dire warning about the disease from the government to date. “We can’t assume it’s not going to be a big problem,” Schuchat said.

Last week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said there have been 672 confirmed Zika cases in the United States and its territories, including 64 cases in pregnant women. One child has been born in the U.S. with Zika-related birth defects.

These numbers are up dramatically from previous CDC estimates. Just several weeks ago, at the end of March, the CDC reported 349 cases in the U.S. and its territories, including 37 pregnant women.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

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