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Congress needs to help protect Americans from the catastrophic effects of the Zika virus

Congress should grant President Obama’s request and allocate more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to prevent and treat the Zika outbreak. The virus’s threat is even worse than originally thought.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made such allocation politically palatable, at least among constituents in Puerto Rico and the Southern states where the threat has landed or is imminent with the coming summer heat.

The Caribbean island and unincorporated U.S. territory is already battling the mosquito-related infection. The Zika virus outbreak began last year in Brazil and has now been definitively identified as causing microcephaly.

Some pregnant women across Latin America have been tragically affected by mosquitos carrying the virus. Heartbreaking images of newborns with smaller than normal heads and desperate mothers have been beamed around the world for the past several months. Until now, officials had been reluctant to firmly associate an unusually small head and brain damage in infants born to infected mothers.

But now the CDC has made it official. There’s a straight line connecting infection by the Zika virus and microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the CDC director, has been quoted in the media that the conclusion points to “an unprecedented association” in medicine.

He noted the extraordinary circumstances in history – “never before” – in which “a bite from a mosquito can result in a devastating malformation.”

It is a determination that requires due diligence and education for Americans traveling to affected areas in Latin America and those living in Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Southern states. The latter is of great concern to average Americans who will have to be watchful as the virus is expected to arrive this summer.

Florida and Texas are reportedly most at risk, especially in urban areas where the mosquito thrives and where there can be a lack of air conditioning and, therefore, a greater likelihood of open windows.

The Zika virus has affected a tiny percentage of the U.S. population. There have been roughly 700 people infected in this country as of last week, including 69 pregnant women. CDC officials indicate about half of the cases are in Puerto Rico. A good portion of the other American cases have occurred in people who traveled to South America. A vaccine is being prepared, but it will be at least a couple of years before one is ready.

Federal health officials are now divided over whether to advise American women to delay pregnancy in affected areas. It is a big step already taken by some countries where the infection rates are high, including El Salvador and Colombia.

Congress should grant Obama’s request for emergency funding and safeguard citizens as much as possible. Just as with natural disasters or the fears about the Ebola virus, this catastrophe in the making requires a focused and potent response.