The White House is seeking $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus, hoping to halt the spread of the relatively unknown disease.
The mosquito-borne virus, which was recently declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization, has infected 51 people in the United States as of last Friday. While the virus causes mild symptoms in adults, it has been linked to birth defects in newborns as well as the paralyzing condition Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults.
Federal health officials have underscored that little is known about the disease — even diagnosing it is tricky. Still, President Obama took to the airwaves on Monday to urge the public to remain calm about the Zika virus.
"There shouldn't be panic on this. This is not something where people are going to die from it," he said in an interview with CBS "This Morning." "It is something we have to take seriously."
A pair of top health officials — Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the infectious diseases center at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Anne Schuchat, an assistant surgeon general — will take part in a White House briefing about the virus on Monday. The rare step, followed by a full day of interviews for Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), last Friday, signals the administration's growing focus on public outreach as the virus spreads deeper into the U.S.
Most of the funding — a total of $1.48 billion — would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, and most of that would be directed to the CDC. The CDC has vowed to pour more resources into new research, better testing and stronger tracking of people with the disease.
The health department would also spend $200 million alone on developing a vaccine, an outcome that would likely take years.
Another $250 million of the health department’s funding would benefit Puerto Rico, which has been hit by the outbreak. The money would specifically go into the state’s Medicaid fund and is intended to support pregnant women and children with microcephaly.
While the cases of Zika in the U.S. are growing, the disease remains a far greater threat overseas. More than 30 countries across Central and South America have reported rapid transmission.
About $335 million was requested for the U.S. Agency for International Development and $41 million for the State Department.
All but one of the cases in the U.S. have originated abroad. One case reported in Dallas last week was transmitted sexually, prompting federal health officials to release new guidelines on Friday warning that men who have traveled to Zika-infected countries should use condoms or abstain from sex for the duration of their partner’s pregnancy.