That’s what Dr. Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing on Monday. The pronouncement accompanied a request made by Dr. Schuchat and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that Congress make more funds available for fighting the outbreak.
Currently, the government has $510 million of diverted Ebola funds along with $79 million from other accounts dedicated to combating Zika, which started spreading around South and Central America last year. But health officials are concerned that it’s not enough money—and that if Congress doesn’t make more resources available for the fight, they’ll have to dip into money earmarked for malaria and tuberculosis prevention, as well as flu vaccine funds.
The increased concern is tied to several factors, including a recent Brazilian study that found worrisome, although not conclusive, evidence of a possible new neurological effect of the disease in adults.
Zika is especially scary as a likely cause of microcephaly—a physical deformation that is often accompanied by brain damage—in newborns. But the disease has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome—a neurological condition that leads to temporary and sometimes permanent paralysis—in adults. Now, very early evidence from a new study shows that it could also cause acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM, which is all but indistinguishable from multiple sclerosis. Only two patients in the study of 151 had ADEM and, like Guillain-Barré syndrome, the effects are likely temporary. Still, with experts predicting that as many as four million people will be infected by the end of the year, any additional symptoms are cause for concern.
So how worried should U.S. citizens be? There are about 700 known cases of Zika in the United States and its territories. About half of these were contracted in Puerto Rico, but as of now, there have been no cases of the disease acquired within the U.S. Meaning that, for now, our mosquitoes remain unaffected. However, the strain of mosquito that has the potential to carry Zika has been found in 30 states—“more than twice what officials originally thought.”
“While we absolutely hope we don’t see widespread local transmission in the continental U.S.,” Dr. Schuchat told reporters on Monday, “we need the states to be ready for that.”
Without a vaccine (trials to develop one should start later this year, but nothing would be available for the public until 2018 at the earliest) or a cure, Zika prevention is limited to measures that can be taken against mosquito bites. Since these are necessarily imperfect, pregnant women are advised to avoid travel to impacted countries (there’s an exception for high altitudes were mosquitoes aren’t present, but you should carefully consider the limitations of relying on such an exception) since their unborn babies are at the greatest risk. The risk posed by becoming pregnant after spending time in an effected country (if the mother shows no sign of infection) is low. However, preliminary research has shown that the virus can be sexually transmitted from infected men (there are no known examples of infected women passing on the disease to sex partners) for months after symptoms have subsided, and officials recommend that men who had Zika wait at least six months after recovery to have unprotected sex.
If you’re not pregnant, don’t plan to be, and aren’t risking pregnancy with unprotected sex, most Zika symptoms are still considered relatively mild. However, if you have cause to be concern, and start to display any of the early viral symptoms—which can include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes—get tested quickly, as results are much more accurate within the first week of contraction.
Don’t panic, though.