White House to hold summit on Zika virus

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The White House will hold a day-long summit on the Zika virus next month, summoning top researchers and government officials to help prepare the nation for the disease to begin spreading in the U.S. this spring.

The discussions will feature government leaders from all levels, as well as experts from the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to administration officials.

It will take place at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta on April 1 — just weeks before the continental U.S. is expected to begin seeing mosquito-transmitted cases of the Zika virus. The mosquito carrying the virus, Aedes aegypti, is expected to land in the Southern U.S. in May or June.

The Zika virus has been linked to a life-threatening birth defect called microcephaly, though the causation has not yet been scientifically proven because the virus is so understudied. Researchers are still working on effective tests to diagnose the virus, and CDC officials have said a vaccine is likely years away.

Administration officials said the summit is intended to help spread “the latest scientific knowledge about Zika” — especially its risks on pregnant women — before it begins spreading in the U.S.

The CDC specifically hopes to “arm state and local leaders with the necessary knowledge and technical support” to come up with their own plans to fight Zika.

Three U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa — are already seeing the virus spread by mosquitoes.

CDC Director Tom Frieden is visiting Puerto Rico next week to assess the virus’s impact and meet with CDC staff who are working on the ground. A total of 103 people have been confirmed with the virus on the island, according to CDC.

The White House’s plans for a Zika summit are the latest sign that it is trying to get ahead of the virus and avoid the type of criticism it faced for its slower reaction to the global spread of Ebola.

So far, the government’s approach to Zika has been far more accelerated than the approach to Ebola, though the White House has been careful to separate the two diseases, which have very different symptoms and transmissions.