U.S. Officials: Zika Focus Is on Pregnant Women

By Marcia Frellick
WebMD Health News

Feb. 9, 2016 --Efforts against the Zika virus in the U.S. are focused on protecting and diagnosing pregnant women and controlling the aggressive mosquito that spreads the virus, two top U.S. health officials said in a White House press briefing Monday.

Also Monday, the CDC announced its Emergency Operations Center is moving to level 1 activation, recognizing that the threat from the virus deserves the highest level of preparedness.

On Friday, the CDC recommended that all pregnant women who have visited countries affected by the virus be offered a test for Zika even if they don't show symptoms.

Last May, Brazil reported the first case of the virus in the Americas. In the fall, Brazil found a rise in the birth defect microcephaly, believed to be associated with the virus. Since then, Zika has spread to a number of countries and U.S. territories in the Americas, and the U.S. has seen some cases of travelers returning with the virus.

For most people, the virus causes a mild rash and illness, and 4 in 5 people who have it show no symptoms, said Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director of the CDC.

"For the average American," she said, "this is not something that will change your day-to-day life. But if you are pregnant, we are taking the unusual step of recommending that you avoid travel to areas where Zika is spreading. If you live in an area such as that or must travel, be very vigilant with applying mosquito repellent and taking steps to avoid mosquito bites."

Aggressive Mosquito

Complicating control is that the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus is an aggressive daytime biter, Schuchat said.

"It lives outside and inside the home, and it could be pretty hard to control it. ... That said, we are working very aggressively with areas where the virus is spreading and where it may spread to make sure that they are prepared and we can help prevent serious complications of pregnancy," she said.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the government is responding on several fronts: understanding the history of the infection, understanding what is different about this virus compared with others, controlling mosquitoes, improving speed of diagnosis, and developing a vaccine.

Improving the speed of diagnosis is crucial, he said. Once a person gets over the virus, an antibody test can tell whether they have had it. The test is done by the CDC and a few specialized centers.

"The only trouble is that because of the similarity between Zika and dengue, it cross-reacts, so if you get a positive, you have to go to the next level of tests that would tell you specifically if it's Zika," Fauci said.

The CDC has been shipping out large amounts of antibody tests so that state health departments can do the tests, "but it's important to say we don't have unlimited quantities right now," Schuchat said.

The White House is asking Congress for $1.8 billion to fight Zika, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during the briefing. Some of that money would go toward developing a vaccine and getting quicker and more accurate tests to tell pregnant women if they have been infected.

Vaccine Trials Coming by Summer

Early trials for a vaccine should start within months, Fauci said, and scientists already have a head start.

"The good news," Fauci said, "is that Zika is a flavivirus, a certain class of viruses that we have successfully developed vaccines against -- viruses like yellow fever, like dengue.

"We can predict that we would likely begin phase I trials to determine if it's safe and if it produces a good response probably by the end of the summer and get that going by the end of this year. We are unlikely to have a vaccine that's widely available for a few years, but we can certainly get the initial steps," he said.

Concerns are escalating as spring break approaches, with throngs of students heading to countries on the watch list and travelers making plans for the Summer Olympics in Brazil.

Schuchat downplayed the fears: "We're not canceling spring break. We're telling people who are pregnant that you may not want to go [to those areas]."

Both Fauci and Schuchat said people thinking about traveling to those places should check CDC guidelines for help in making that decision.

As to a question about the confirmation last week that Zika had been sexually transmitted in Texas, Schuchat responded, "We really don't have any information about how widespread that problem may be, but we did take the step to say that people returning from Zika-infected areas, whether they've had symptoms or not, should take precautions in having sex with a pregnant partner."


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SOURCES: Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director, CDC. Anthony Fauci, MD, director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Josh Earnest, White House press secretary.

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