Obama asks for $2.5b to fight Zika

A woman in Rio de Janeiro wearing a T-shirt that reads "Out Zika". Brazil, which will host the Olympics in August, has been the country hardest hit in the current outbreak.
A woman in Rio de Janeiro wearing a T-shirt that reads "Out Zika". Brazil, which will host the Olympics in August, has been the country hardest hit in the current outbreak.PHOTO: REUTERS

Funds needed for vaccine research, mosquito control programmes, says the White House

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama on Monday asked for more than US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion) in emergency funds to tackle the fast-spreading Zika virus in the US and beyond.

The mosquito-borne illness has surged through Latin America, prompting fears that clement spring weather could bring a spate of cases north of the Rio Grande.

The White House said fresh cash is needed to fund mosquito-control programmes, vaccine research and other "essential strategies" to combat the virus and help "ongoing preparedness efforts".

Zika is not deadly, but in Latin America it has been linked to a rapid rise in the number of children born with microcephaly - abnormally small heads and brains. There is currently no cure or vaccine for the virus which, in most people, causes mild symptoms.

While Mr Obama called for more funds, he also urged people to stay calm.

GOOD NEWS

The good news is this is not like Ebola, people don't die of Zika - a lot of people get it and don't even know that they have it.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, on the fast-spreading Zika virus

"The good news is this is not like Ebola, people don't die of Zika - a lot of people get it and don't even know that they have it," he said in an interview on television channel CBS. "There appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women or women who are thinking about getting pregnant. We don't know exactly what the relations there are, but there is enough correlation that we have to take this very seriously."

The World Health Organisation has declared a global medical emergency to combat Zika.

The head of the US National Institutes of Health, Dr Anthony Fauci, said the prospects for a vaccine are good and phase one trials could begin "sometime in the summer".

He added: "(We are) unlikely to have a vaccine that's widely available for a few years, but we certainly can get the initial steps."

According to the Pan-American Health Organisation, 26 countries have confirmed cases, spanning 7,000km from Mexico to Paraguay. The hardest hit country is Brazil, which will host the Summer Olympics in August.

In Colombia, more than 22,600 cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed. There, the virus has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disease that can cause paralysis in humans.

The US Centres for Disease Control has so far found 50 confirmed cases of Zika among travellers returning to the United States. In at least one instance, the virus may have been transmitted sexually.

But the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the virus is endemic across the southern and eastern United States.

The White House said: "As spring and summer approach, bringing with them larger and more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental US, particularly in the southern United States."

Puerto Rico and other US territories in warmer areas are especially vulnerable. Mr Obama's funding proposal includes US$250 million in aid for the cash-strapped island.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Obama asks for $2.5b to fight Zika'. Print Edition | Subscribe