Protecting Pregnant Women in the US from Zika Is a Top Priority, Officials Say

Pregnant Woman
(Image credit: Svetlana Iakusheva/Shutterstock)

Outbreaks of the Zika virus are likely to occur in the United States; so to prepare, health officials are developing plans to combat Zika that focus on protecting pregnant women from the virus.

More than 300 local, state and federal officials met today (April 1) to discuss these plans at a "Zika Action Summit" in Atlanta. Although the virus, which is carried by mosquitoes, is not yet spreading in the United States, officials stressed that action is needed now to prevent the virus from affecting pregnant women here. (Some cases of Zika have already occurred in the United States, but so far, the only people who caught the virus were either infected while traveling, or had sex with a person who was infected while traveling.)

Although the infection itself is mild, infants born to women infected during pregnancy face an increased risk of microcephaly, a congenital condition that causes an abnormally small head and brain, and brings severe, lifelong cognitive impairments.

"We have a few short months to stop Zika virus from gaining a foothold in the United States," Dr. Edward McCabe, medical director of the March of Dimes, said today at a news conference. "If we don't, the consequences will be dire, McCabe said, adding that early action could save dozens or many hundreds of babies from being born with health problems.

"The risk is to pregnant women and the developing fetus, and all of our activities need to be focused on mitigating that risk," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which hosted the summit.

Outbreaks of Zika are likely in the United States because the mosquitoes that transmit the virus are common in some parts of the country. Each state or county will have a different plan for Zika, depending on the risk of the virus spreading there, officials said. These plans could include ways to control local mosquito populations and test for the virus in mosquitoes, as well as ways to educate people on how to protect themselves from mosquito bites.

The plans also could include prevention "kits" for pregnant women, which New York state already plans to distribute. These kits contain insect repellent, condoms (to prevent the sexual transmission of the virus) and larvicide tablets (that can kill mosquito larvae) to treat standing water.

Texas, Florida and Hawaii are thought to have the highest risk for local Zika spread, based on their history with similar viruses, such as chikungunya and the virus that causes dengue fever. [Zika Virus FAQs: Top Questions Answered]

Officials stressed that they will need funding for their Zika prevention efforts — a total of $1.9 billion has been requested but has not been approved by Congress..

It'sestimates that the health care of a single child with microcephaly can cost $10 million over a lifetime, Frieden said.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.