Zika outbreak: White House seeks $1.8B to respond to virus

President Barack Obama will ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to better prepare and respond to the Zika virus at home and abroad.

The White House announced its plans Monday, in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Emergency Operation Center moving to its "highest level of activation" for its response to Zika. Earlier this month the World Health Organization warned of the potential that the virus could lead to an explosive pandemic and has declared the virus an international emergency.

There are now 50 laboratory-confirmed cases of the mosquito-borne illness among U.S. travelers, but the number will likely rise as spring approaches, according to the White House. The administration says the country must be fully prepared to handle more active mosquito populations.

The first case of Zika was reported in Brazil in May 2015. It has since spread throughout the country and is now reported in 26 countries and territories in the Americas. But the number of cases may be higher because some people have no symptoms. The greatest threat appears to be to pregnant women as the virus has been linked to microcephaly in fetuses in utero.

The federal funds would provide $1.4 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the White House fact sheet. The CDC would receive $828 million to prepare and respond to the virus, enhance mosquito control programs, improve laboratory capacity to test for the virus and improve diagnostics.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services would receive $250 million to provide Medicaid assistance to Puerto Rico to support pregnant women at risk of infection or diagnosed with the virus and for children with microcephaly. Approximately $200 million of funds will go to research to develop a vaccine and diagnostic tests. And another $210 million would go to developing an urgent and emerging threat fund to address Zika as well as other outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Approximately $335 million will help other countries' ability to control mosquitos and provide needed healthcare services. Another $41 million would provide medical support to state department employees in affected countries as well as to the WHO and its regional arm, the Pan American Health Organization.

In related news, the CDC said it activated the high emergency status to accelerate efforts to prepare for the virus transmission within the country and provide on-the-ground support in Puerto Rico, Brazil and Colombia.

Meanwhile, public health officials and physicians are trying to ease patient fears about the virus, the Los Angeles Times reports. Although pregnant women who haven't traveled to countries with outbreaks aren't at risk for infections, doctors say their patients are worried because there is still so much to learn about how the illness is transmitted.

"You can't reassure them," Kathleen Berkowitz,  M.D., an obstetrician who practices in Los Angeles and Orange counties, told the publication.

The problem is there isn't much information about the virus, considered by many to be a silent illness because many people don't have symptoms. It was only when a number of babies in Brazil were born with abnormally small heads that public health officials began to realize the seriousness of the virus.

In recent weeks there have been confirmed cases through sexual transmission. Zika has also been detected in other bodily fluids although public health officials don't know yet if it can be transmitted that way, the LA Times reports.

To learn more:
- here's the White House fact sheet
- read the CDC alert notice
- check out the LA Times coverage