Zika Prompts Puerto Rico Health Emergency

     (CN) — The Obama administration on Friday declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico due to rapid and widespread local transmission of the Zika virus, which poses a significant threat to pregnant women and their babies.
     The Caribbean island and U.S. territory has reported 10,690 laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika, including 1,035 pregnant women. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that the actual number of infections from the mosquito-borne virus could be much higher.
     Puerto Rico is expected to experience the worst Zika outbreak among U.S. states and territories due its tropical climate and minimal infrastructure for mosquito control.
     “As the first virus that can be transmitted by mosquitoes known to cause severe birth defects, we are working closely with Puerto Rican officials to pursue solutions to fight the virus in Puerto Rico with a focus on protecting pregnant women and continuing our efforts with jurisdictions throughout the United States to address this public health threat,” Heath and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement.
     The only local transmission of the virus within the continental United States has been in a neighborhood in Miami.
     While the virus generally causes mild symptoms in adults — and only about 20 percent even have symptoms at all — Zika’s connection to a host of different congenital birth defects makes it particularly dangerous for women who are pregnant or wish to become pregnant.
     Microcephaly, a birth defect that is characterized by abnormally small head size and potential brain damage in fetuses and infants, has been connected to Zika in multiple studies.
     “This administration is committed to meeting the Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico with the necessary urgency,” Burwell said.
     The last time Health and Human Services declared such an emergency was following Superstorm Sandy, which affected a significant portion of the East Coast in 2012.
     Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla requested emergency declaration, which allows the island to apply for additional funding to hire and train unemployed workers to assist in combating Zika.
     “This emergency declaration allows us to provide additional support to the Puerto Rican government and reminds us of the importance of pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and their partners taking additional steps to protect themselves and their families from Zika,” Burwell said.
     The Obama administration also recently shifted $81 million in funds from other projects to support the development of vaccines to combat the virus.

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