The White House will redirect more than half-a-billion dollars from its cache of Ebola funds to address the emerging Zika threat because the mosquito-borne virus is likely to soon make its way to the United States.
Administration officials, speaking during a telephone news briefing Wednesday, said the money would help fund research into vaccines, Zika-specific diagnostics and aid state efforts to conduct surveillance for the emerging pathogen.
“We believe there will likely be local transmission in the United States,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell who also predicted “cities as far north as San Francisco, Kansas City and New York,” could experience cases of the infection by this summer.
Burwell said nothing less than a full-blown assault on the emerging virus and its carrier mosquitoes was important because a woman who harbored the pathogen had already given birth in Hawaii to a child with Zika-related microcephaly. The birth defect is marked by unusually small head and brain size. It is the first case of Zika-related microcephaly in the United States, Burwell said Wednesday.
She added that 64 women had been identified across the country who had contracted the virus while pregnant. At least five who were pregnant when diagnosed were identified by health officials in New York City.
The birth defect has become problematic in Latin America and has reached devastating proportions in Brazil, according to the World Health Organization.
“We will move quickly on all fronts,” Burwell said.
On Long Island, preparedness efforts are underway in Nassau County where officials at the health department are awaiting supplies of new mosquito traps that will be set in secret locations starting in May. Warmer weather heralds flight season for swarms of local mosquitoes and this year health officials will conduct surveillance for a slew of worrisome viruses the insects may carry.
Health department spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said in addition to conducting surveillance for triple-E — Eastern equine encephalitis — and West Nile, Nassau health officials this year would be on the lookout for the possibility that local mosquitoes might acquire the capacity to harbor and transmit Zika.
She said the traps were placed in undisclosed locations to prevent the public from tampering with them.
“We stress every year the need for residents to eliminate any mosquito breeding grounds on their property,” said Laurain referring to flower pots, old tires, vases or other small vessels where water can pool. Unattended swimming pools can evolve into mosquito habitats, entomologists have found.
Laurain said Aedes aegypti, the mosquito associated with the Zika virus epidemic in Latin America, was not in this geographic region. West Nile, she said, is largely carried by Culex pipiens, the common house mosquito.
Daytime flyer and sneak-attack biter, Aedes albopictus, another mosquito species is on Long Island, Laurain said and also would be part of the county’s surveillance program. Aedes albopictus, known as the Asian tiger mosquito, is called a sneak-attack biter because it often assaults its victims from behind, leaving bites on the back of the legs, arms and neck.
Female mosquitoes bite for a blood meal, which is used to incubate eggs.
Scientists with the World Health Organization have been studying the Asian tiger mosquito for its potential to carry and transmit Zika virus because of its close relationship with Aedes aegypti. That menace, which has a range throughout much of Latin America, has become regarded by some scientists as the cockroach among mosquitoes because it is so difficult to kill.
Still, preparedness efforts should not be confused with the possibility of a massive outbreak of Zika virus in the United States, said Dr. Burt Rochelson, chief of maternal fetal medicine at Northwell Health and director of obstetrics at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
“The CDC is preparing for cases in the United States but doesn’t expect the magnitude of what it is in Brazil,” said Rochelson, founder of the Zika Exposure and Pregnancy Program, at Northwell.
Rochelson was part of a New York delegation that attended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s first major summit on the emergence of Zika virus Friday in Atlanta. The CDC meeting, like the Obama administration news briefing Wednesday, are part of a broad federal effort to address concerns about the virus.
In addition to mosquito bites, Zika virus can be transmitted sexually. Most people who contract the virus develop no symptoms at all, said Dan Epstein, spokesman for the Pan American Health Organization, a division of WHO.
The virus, however, can cause a rash, fever and conjunctivitis — red eyes — in some people, and it also has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralytic disorder also associated with other viral infections, he said.