'It lives in dark corners': White House steps up the fight against Zika virus

Washington: The White House and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will gather state and local officials next month to craft an urgent plan of attack to stop the spread of the Zika virus.

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By June or July, federal health officials expect the first locally transmitted cases of the Zika virus in the continental United States. The virus has already been linked to thousands of suspected cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in Brazil.

The White House is inviting officials involved in mosquito control and public health to an April 1 summit at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters to talk about how best to track and control the spread of the virus, and respond when people are affected.

An Aedes aegypti mosquito at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Brazil. Google engineers in San Francisco and New York are ...
An Aedes aegypti mosquito at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Brazil. Google engineers in San Francisco and New York are working with UNICEF to create a system that helps predict where the mosquito, which spreads the Zika virus, might next be active in the future. Photo: AP

"The best-case scenario here is that we could either limit local transmission or get ahead of it and contain it as soon as possible," said Amy Pope, the deputy assistant for homeland security for President Barack Obama.

She described the virus as "hardy" and said it "lives in dark corners."


Communities across the country have different approaches to controlling the insect, she added. "There's no coordinated planning at this point, and we think that needs to happen."

While most people bitten by an infected insect experience only mild illness, pregnant women need to take extra precautions, the CDC has said.

Caio Julio Vasconcelos, just one of many babies born with microcephaly in Brazil.
Caio Julio Vasconcelos, just one of many babies born with microcephaly in Brazil. Photo: AP

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday that there was "accumulating evidence" of a link between Zika and microcephaly as well as Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological disorder that can cause paralysis.

More than a dozen suspected cases of sexual transmission and one case of suspected transmission through a blood transfusion have raised questions about other ways that Zika may spread.

The CDC had originally expected small pockets of Zika outbreaks in some southern states through local transmission. Widespread use of air conditioning, window screens and regular garbage collection would mitigate the risk, the agency said.

'Time is precious' 

The CDC's Principal Deputy Director, Dr Anne Schuchat, said "time is precious" in the bid to stop the virus.

The outbreak has already affected large parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. WHO estimates Zika could eventually affect as many as 4 million people in the Americas.

There have already been more than 100 cases in Puerto Rico, with thousands more expected this year, Dr Schuchat said.

"We are extremely concerned about Puerto Rico," she said.

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly in babies.

Brazil said it had confirmed more than 640 cases of this condition, which is defined by unusually small heads that can result in developmental problems, and considers most of them to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. The nation is investigating more than 4,200 additional suspected cases of the birth defect.

The species of mosquito that carries Zika probably will begin to emerge in the continental United States in April or May.

Mr Obama has asked the US Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the virus.

Several top lawmakers have balked, saying he should first draw from other health funding, but Ms Pope warned against waiting too long.

"If we don't get funding until after we see transmission in the United States, until after we see children born with birth defects," she said, "then we're well behind the curve."