White House to transfer Ebola funds to combat Zika virus

Scientists: Zika causing birth defects, maybe more

WASHINGTON - Congressional officials say the Obama administration has decided to transfer leftover money from the largely successful fight against Ebola to combat the growing threat of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, the Southeast U.S., and Central and South America.

Most of the $600 million or so would be devoted to the Centers for Disease Control, which is focused on research and development of anti-Zika vaccines, treating those infected with the virus and combating the mosquitoes that spread it.

Researchers fear Zika causes microcephaly, a serious birth defect, and other threats to the children of pregnant women infected with it.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter before an official announcement expected from the White House on Wednesday.

Below is a breakdown, by county, of the number of cases of Zika in Florida. The state's health department says all 79 cases of Zika so far have been contracted either while traveling abroad, or directly from someone who had recently.

BY COUNTY

  • Alachua - 4
  • Brevard - 2
  • Broward - 12
  • Clay - 1
  • Collier - 1
  • Hillsborough - 3
  • Lee - 3
  • Miami-Dade - 32
  • Orange - 5
  • Osceola - 4
  • Palm Beach - 2
  • Polk - 3
  • Santa Rosa - 1
  • Seminole - 1
  • St. Johns - 1
  • Cases involving pregnant women* - 5

Total
80

This news from the White House comes just days after the CDC, and the World Health Organization, for the first time announced they were sure Zika iscausing the birth defect microcephaly and the paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome.

However, overnight, Zika scientists told Reuters that there is reason to fear Zika is also causing serious brain and spinal cord infections - including encephalitis, meningitis and myelitis.

Evidence that Zika's damage may be more varied and widespread than initially believed adds pressure on affected countries to control mosquitoes and prepare to provide intensive - and, in some cases, lifelong - care to more patients. The newly suspected disorders can cause paralysis and permanent disability - a clinical outlook that adds urgency to vaccine development efforts.

Scientists are of two minds about why these new maladies have come into view. The first is that, as the virus is spreading through such large populations, it is revealing aspects of Zika that went unnoticed in earlier outbreaks in remote and sparsely populated areas. The second is that the newly detected disorders are more evidence that the virus has evolved.

"What we're seeing are the consequences of this virus turning from the African strain to a pandemic strain," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The suspicion that Zika acts directly on nerve cells began with autopsies on aborted and stillborn fetuses showing the virus replicating in brain tissues. In addition to microcephaly, researchers reported finding other abnormalities linked with Zika including fetal deaths, placental insufficiency, fetal growth retardation and injury to the central nervous system.

Doctors also are worried that Zika exposure in utero may have hidden effects, such as behavioral problems or learning disabilities, that are not apparent at birth.

"If you have a virus that is toxic enough to produce microcephaly in someone, you could be sure that it will produce a whole series of conditions that we haven't even begun to understand," said Dr. Alberto de la Vega, an obstetrician at San Juan's University Hospital in Puerto Rico.

First discovered in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947, the virus circulated quietly in Africa and Asia, causing rare infections and producing mild symptoms. A 2013 outbreak in French Polynesia, the largest at that time, led researchers to make the Guillain-Barre link. Other neurological effects were noted but scientists made little of them at the time.

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