U.S. health officials are stepping up efforts to study the link
between Zika virus infections and birth defects, citing a recent
study estimating the virus could reach regions where 60 percent of
the U.S. population lives.
Obama was briefed on the potential spread of the virus by his top
health and national security officials on Tuesday.
"The president emphasized the need to accelerate research efforts to
make available better diagnostic tests, to develop vaccines and
therapeutics, and to ensure that all Americans have information
about the Zika virus and steps they can take to better protect
themselves from infection," the White House said in a statement.
The virus has been linked to brain damage in thousands of babies in
Brazil. There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, a close cousin of
dengue and chikungunya, which causes mild fever and rash. An
estimated 80 percent of people infected have no symptoms, making it
difficult for pregnant women to know whether they have been
On Monday, the World Health Organization predicted the virus would
spread to all countries across the Americas except for Canada and
In a blog post, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis
Collins cited a Lancet study published Jan. 14 in which researchers
predicted the Zika virus could be spread in areas along the East and
West Coasts of the United States and much of the Midwest during
warmer months, where about 200 million people live.
The study also showed that 22.7 million more people live in humid
parts of the country where mosquitoes carrying the virus could live
Given the threat, Collins said "it is now critically important to
confirm, through careful epidemiological and animal studies, whether
or not a causal link exists between Zika virus infections in
pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn babies."
Microcephaly results in babies being born with abnormally small
There is still much to learn about Zika infections, experts said.
For example, it is not clear how common Zika infections are in
pregnant women, or when during a pregnancy a woman is most at risk
of transmitting the virus to her fetus.
Collins said the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Disease is conducting studies to more fully understand the effects
of Zika in humans, and to develop better diagnostic tests to quickly
determine if someone has been infected. The NIAID is also working on
testing new drugs that might be effective against the virus.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also announced
new instructions for pediatricians treating infants whose mothers
may have been exposed to the virus during pregnancy.
In those guidelines, the CDC made clear that it considers the Zika
virus a nationally notifiable condition, and instructs doctors to
contact their state or territorial health departments to facilitate
testing of potentially infected infants.
Dr. Kathryn Edwards of Vanderbilt University, who serves on the
American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious disease,
said the guidelines were intended to help establish whether Zika
causes microcephaly and to help pregnant women who may have been
infected with the virus.
[to top of second column]
Microcephaly is a lifelong condition with no known cure, the CDC
website said. Symptoms range from mild to severe.
In mild cases, infants often have no symptoms other than small head
size, but doctors still need to check their development regularly.
In severe cases, babies may need speech, occupational and physical
The guidelines for testing infants affected by Zika infections
follows CDC guidelines for caring for pregnant women exposed to Zika
virus, which were first reported by Reuters. The CDC said last week
it is trying to determine how many pregnant women may have traveled
to affected regions in the past several months.
On Tuesday, the CDC added the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican
Republic to its list of countries and territories with Zika
transmissions, bringing the total to 24.
The CDC has told pregnant women not to travel to countries and
territories in Latin America and the Caribbean affected by Zika.
Travel companies, including United Airlines, have begun offering
refunds or allowing pregnant women to postpone trips to regions
affected by Zika with no penalty.
There are no global estimates for how many people in the world have
been infected by the Zika virus, World Health Organization spokesman
Christian Lindmeier said on Tuesday.
He said that because Zika has such mild symptoms, the virus has "not
really been on the radar."
Lindmeier said it was not yet clear whether the virus affecting
Brazil and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean was a
mutated version of the virus that has caused prior outbreaks.
He said the WHO was working with the CDC, the Institut Pasteur in
France and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to
"There is a lot of effort going into this now, on the ground, in the
laboratories, everywhere,” Lindmeier said.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; additional reporting by Tom Miles
in Geneva; Editing by Grant McCool and Stephen Coates)
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.