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Zika 'scarier than we thought,' warns CDC

| Monday, April 11, 2016, 9:27 p.m.
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11:  Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci (R), and Principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Anne Schuchat (L) speak to members of the media during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room April 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. Fauci and Schuchat joined the briefing to discuss the current situation of the spread of Zika Virus.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci (R), and Principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Anne Schuchat (L) speak to members of the media during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room April 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. Fauci and Schuchat joined the briefing to discuss the current situation of the spread of Zika Virus. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Public health officials used their strongest language to date in warning about a Zika outbreak in the United States, as the Obama administration lobbied Congress for $1.9 billion to combat the mosquito-borne virus.

“Most of what we've learned is not reassuring,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”

As summer approaches, officials are warning that mosquito eradication efforts, lab tests and vaccine research may not be able to catch up. There are 346 cases of Zika confirmed in the continental United States — all in people who had recently traveled to Zika-prone countries, according to the most recent CDC report. Of those, 32 were in pregnant women, and seven were sexually transmitted.

But in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa, the virus is being transmitted locally. Of the 354 cases in the territories, only three are travel-related, and 37 involved pregnant women.

Schuchat said the virus has been linked to a broader array of birth defects throughout a longer period of pregnancy, including premature birth and blindness in addition to the smaller brain size caused by microcephaly. The potential geographic range of the mosquitoes transmitting the virus reaches farther northward, with the Aedes aegypti species present in all or part of 30 states, not just 12. And it can be spread sexually, causing the CDC to update its guidance to couples.

Researchers don't know how many babies of women infected with Zika will end up with birth defects, or what drugs and vaccines may be effective.

“This is a very unusual virus that we can't pretend to know everything about it that we need to know,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I'm not an alarmist, and most of you who know me know that I am not, but the more we learn about the neurological aspects, the more we look around and say this is very serious.”

That assessment, delivered to reporters at the White House, occurs the week after the White House informed Congress it was moving more than $510 million earmarked to combat Ebola in Africa with Zika prevention efforts closer to home.

“What I've done is take money from other areas of non-Zika research to start. We couldn't just stop and wait for the money,” Fauci said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the newest warning “hopefully serves as motivation for members of Congress to pay attention to this important topic.”

But congressional Republicans accused the White House of trying to “politicize” Zika.

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