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States Urged to Prepare for Zika at CDC Summit

(CN) - The White House on Friday convened a Zika virus summit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss strategies for federal, state and local officials to stem the virus.

Roughly 300 officials attended the summit and another 2,500 watched online.

Zika's suspected connection to microcephaly and other birth defects has prompted research and various prevention efforts internationally.

Experts at the CDC discussed strategies for preventing the spread of the virus within the United States, focusing on protecting pregnant women and their fetuses.

"It's been more than 50 years since there has been a viral cause of a severe birth defect identified, and we've never before identified a mosquito-borne cause of birth defects," CDC director Thomas Frieden said at the summit.

Frieden said that microcephaly is not the only birth defect that is likely connected to Zika.

"What is clear is that the spectrum of risk to pregnancy is beyond microcephaly," he said. "The spectrum includes, apparently, miscarriage and other at-risk outcomes; it appears to be present in all trimesters of pregnancy."

While researchers have made some progress in identifying Zika traits that differentiate it from other flaviviruses, including mapping the structure of the virus at the near-atomic level, a vaccine and reliable tests are still months away.

"If we wait until we see widespread transmission in the U.S., if we wait until the public is panicking because they're seeing babies born with birth defects, we will have waited too long," Amy Pope, deputy homeland security adviser and deputy assistant to President Barack Obama at the National Security Council, said at the summit.

Due to the threat that Zika poses to the United States going forward, Frieden recommended that each state name a Zika coordinator to work with officials at the state and local levels on vector-control programs and other efforts to protect and educate people.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is the primary carrier of Zika. The insect also carries dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus.

Frieden said that Hawaii, Florida and Texas face the highest risk of local transmission due to large populations of the Aedes aegypti, but noted that other states are also at risk.

"It's very difficult to predict what the pattern will be," Frieden said. "We may see explosive spread in one area, followed by a long period of lower-level transmission. However, one area might be one part of a county, one city, part of a city."

Health experts have cautioned that local transmission within the United States is likely this summer due to warmer weather, which the Aedes aegypti mosquito prefers.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has already experienced hundreds of locally acquired cases of Zika, which Frieden believes could expand to hundreds of thousands of cases by the end of 2016. Many of these cases will involve pregnant women.

"Many homes lack window screens and air conditioning, making it hard to prevent mosquito bites," Frieden said. "Access to contraception in Puerto Rico is limited for couples who want to avoid pregnancy during this outbreak."

The White House and Congress have been divided on providing additional funding to combat Zika, with congressional Republicans suggesting that unspent Ebola funds be used to combat the virus.

"Without significantly increased resources, it's going to be very difficult to do the kind of innovations that we need to do to provide rapid testing and rapid control," Frieden said.

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