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Obama: Zika Poses Significant Threat, Public Should Take Precautions

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2016 — The Zika virus is posing a significant threat to the American people, especially babies, and the nation should take precautions against its spread, President Barack Obama said today at the Pentagon.

"As our public health experts have been warning for some time, we are now seeing the first locally transmitted cases of the Zika virus by mosquitos in the continental United States," Obama said about the 15 cases in the Miami area.

"We're taking this extremely seriously," he said during a news conference following a National Security Council meeting on the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Obama commended efforts by health officials, saying experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working closely with Florida health authorities to halt the spread there. "There is a very aggressive effort underway to control mosquitoes there," he said. "We'll keep working as one team -- federal, state and local -- to try to slow and limit the spread of the virus. Zika is now present in almost every part of Puerto Rico, and now we have the first local transmission in Florida, and there will certainly be more."

Health experts do not expect to see a widespread outbreak like those in Brazil or Puerto Rico, the president said. The mosquitoes that spread Zika, he explained, are limited to certain regions in the United States.

"But we cannot be complacent, because we do expect to see more Zika cases," he added. He urged the American public to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for information about how to help stop the spread.

The virus, which is mainly spread through infected mosquitos, can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus and cause birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Defense Department Efforts

Obama said more than 1,800 known cases of Zika in 50 U.S. states are connected to travel to infected areas. That number includes nearly 500 pregnant women, he said. More than 40 U.S. service members have contracted the Zika virus overseas, he added.

The Defense Department is working closely with federal, state and local authorities to monitor the threat of Zika to its military and civilian personnel and their dependents, a DoD spokesman said.

"We have been taking proactive steps for months to help mitigate the threat of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses in the continental United States and overseas," the spokesman said. Those actions, the spokesman said, include increased emphasis on education about personal protective measures; increased attention to mosquito surveillance and control; expanded diagnostic laboratory testing; and increased attention and preparedness in medical treatment facilities to screen, diagnose and care for infected people.

"We will continue working closely with our federal, state and local partners to ensure consistent reporting of potential cases and unity of effort in reducing the virus' impact on local communities," the defense official said.

Although Zika can be spread through sex, it is mostly spread by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito -- Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus -- and the best way to prevent Zika is to prevent mosquito bites, according to the CDC. No vaccine or medicine is available for Zika.

(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter @FerdinandoDoD)

Distribution channels: Military