CDC director: Zika to infect 'thousands' of pregnant women in Puerto Rico this year

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The nation’s top disease expert on Thursday predicted that hundreds of thousands of people will contract the Zika virus in Puerto Rico this year, including “thousands” of pregnant women.  

“That is deeply concerning,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in an interview with The Hill on Thursday.

Frieden said the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico, where cases of Zika are doubling almost weekly, underscores the need for Congress to approve the White House’s request for about $2 billion in emergency funding.

So far, congressional Republicans have rejected the calls for more funding, arguing the CDC should use its leftover money from fighting the Ebola epidemic before receiving more.  

“The idea that we should rob Peter to pay Paul and hope that Congress replaces money that’s essential to keep America safe is frankly, I think, too dangerous to do,” Frieden said.

“I am concerned because some of the measures we’re considering in Puerto Rico will be very expensive,” he said, adding that the money is needed as soon as possible.

He warned that Puerto Rico’s rainy season is coming — “it started raining while we were there” — which will lead to a higher number of mosquito-transmitted infections.  

The CDC director is sounding the alarm about Puerto Rico one day after returning from a three-day trip to the island. He said the most alarming part of his time there is the “enormity of the challenge” of fighting Zika in Puerto Rico, which has a population of about 3.5 million people.

Frieden, who is based in Atlanta, will come to D.C. next week to continue making the case for the funding request in Congress. The money would help prevent, treat and diagnose the Zika virus, which has been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly and is expected to spread in the U.S. this spring.

The Obama administration has been ramping up the pressure on GOP lawmakers to act on Zika over the past week.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned last week that Congress could not afford to “fall asleep at the switch” by ignoring the funding requests.

In a call with reporters later Thursday morning, Frieden reiterated funding for Congress is “crucially important and urgently needed.”

He pitched the White House’s funding request as a key way to save lives and save money in the long term, underscoring that the costs of caring for an infant with a birth defect can exceed $10 million.
“We hope Congress will rapidly provide resources needed for a robust response,” he said.

Frieden was joined by the head of the CDC's infectious disease arm, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who also pressed Congress to quickly support the agency's efforts with more funding.

"I feel very strongly we need to support what the CDC is doing," Fauci said.