Following increasing concern among U.S. and global health officials over Zika, President Barack Obama Monday outlined a $1.9 billion plan to help prepare for, and respond to, the mosquito-borne virus.

The funds would boost ongoing preparedness work and strengthen efforts to stop transmission of the virus, including expanding mosquito-control programs, increasing disease surveillance and laboratory capacity, and improving health education and health services for pregnant women and families. The new money would also jump-start vaccine research and development.

While the virus has been around for decades, its recent rapid spread in the Americas has raised alarm, especially due to its suspected link to serious birth defects and other potential health problems.

“Zika presents a new threat for communities across our nation,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of APHA, in a news release. “New threats require new investments. The president’s request is a prudent step to help ensure we are as prepared as possible to detect and defend against this emerging health risk.”

Just under half of the funding would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support Zika readiness and response. Funding would also go to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration for vaccine development and medical product development, and to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for health services for at-risk pregnant women and children in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department would receive money to assist affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

CDC Emergency Operations Center

CDC moved its Emergency Operations Center to a Level 1 activation in response to growing concerns over Zika virus. Image courtesy CDC

WHO, CDC heighten response

Last week the World Health Organization declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern calling for a coordinated global response to reduce the threat in affected countries and slow its transmission abroad.

On Feb. 3, CDC moved its Emergency Operations Center to a Level 1 activation, its highest stage of alert. According to a statement for the media, the move reflects “the agency’s assessment of the need for an accelerated preparedness to bring together experts to focus intently and work efficiently in anticipation of local Zika virus transmission by mosquitoes in the continental U.S.”

The command center has been activated since January to help coordinate agency efforts, such as developing lab tests, investigating possible linkages with microcephaly and Guillain Barré syndrome, and providing surveillance and other support for response efforts in the U.S., its territories and affected countries.

“While we’ve only seen one case of reported Zika virus transmission in the U.S., it’s only a matter of time,” Benjamin said. “We have a lot to learn and prepare for, and we need to do so quickly.”

The administration is expected to submit to Congress a formal request for funding soon.

For more on the virus, visit APHA’s Zika virus Web page.