By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will gather state and local officials next month to urgently craft a plan to attack the hard-to-control mosquito that spreads the Zika virus.
By June or July, federal health officials expect the first locally transmitted cases of the Zika virus in the continental United States. The virus has been linked to thousands of suspected cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in Brazil.
The White House is inviting officials involved in mosquito control and public health to an April 1 summit at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters to talk about how best to track and control the spread of the virus, and respond when people are affected.
"The best-case scenario here is that we could either limit local transmission or get ahead of it and contain it as soon as possible," Amy Pope, the deputy assistant for homeland security for President Barack Obama, said in an interview.
While most people bitten by an infected insect experience only mild illness, pregnant women need to take extra precautions, the CDC has said. The World Health Organization said on Friday that there was "accumulating evidence" of a link between Zika and microcephaly as well as Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological disorder that can cause paralysis.
More than a dozen suspected cases of sexual transmission and one case of suspected transmission through a blood transfusion have raised questions about other ways that Zika may spread.
The CDC had originally expected small pockets of Zika outbreaks in some southern states through local transmission. Widespread use of air conditioning, window screens and regular garbage collection would mitigate the risk, the agency said.
"TIME IS PRECIOUS"
"We've had surprises," CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said in an interview, noting that the suspected cases of sexual transmission might prompt the agency to reassess its projections.
"We're in a posture of knowing that time is precious and collaboration is essential," Schuchat said.
The outbreak has already affected large parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Health Organization estimates Zika could eventually affect as many as 4 million people in the Americas.
There have already been more than 100 cases in Puerto Rico, with thousands more expected this year, Schuchat said.
"We are extremely concerned about Puerto Rico," she said.
CDC Director Thomas Frieden on Monday will make his first trip to the island territory since the outbreak and will talk with government officials and CDC workers about Zika, she said.
Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly in babies.
Brazil said it had confirmed more than 640 cases of this condition, which is defined by unusually small heads that can result in developmental problems, and considers most of them to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. The nation is investigating more than 4,200 additional suspected cases of the birth defect.
The species of mosquito that carries Zika probably will begin to emerge in the continental United States in April or May.
"It's hardy," Pope said. "It lives in dark corners."
Communities across the country have different approaches to controlling the insect, she added. "There's no coordinated planning at this point, and we think that needs to happen."
Obama has asked the U.S. Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the virus.
Several top lawmakers have balked, saying he should first draw from other health funding, but Pope warned against waiting too long.
"If we don't get funding until after we see transmission in the United States, until after we see children born with birth defects," she said, "then we're well behind the curve."
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Andrew Hay and Lisa Von Ahn)