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Obama Wants $1.8 Billion to Combat Zika

President Barack Obama is asking Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus and the mosquitoes that spread it here and abroad, but says “there shouldn’t be a panic on this.”

While most people experience either mild or no symptoms, Zika is suspected of causing a devastating birth defect – babies born with abnormally small heads – and pregnant Americans are urged to avoid travel to affected areas.

The virus is spreading rapidly through Latin America.

Health officials in the U.S. say the funds are critical for research into the birth defect known as microcephaly. They want to speed up development of a vaccine and better diagnostic tests, as well as expand mosquito control programs.

Some of the money would also aid Zika-stricken countries and territories.

“What we now know is that there appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women and women who are thinking about having a baby,” Obama said in an interview aired Monday on CBS This Morning.

Experts don’t expect large outbreaks in the continental U.S.,but the emergency funding would also help them prepare for any local transmission as spring and summer approach. The administration is seeking the Zika money separately from the regular budget for the next fiscal year, which Obama will submit to Congress on Tuesday.

Most of the money would go to health officials for such things as improving laboratory testing capacity, education and establishing rapid response teams. About $250 million of assistance would be directed specifically to Puerto Rico though extra Medicaid funding for health services, and $200 million would go toward research and commercialization of new vaccines and diagnostic tests.

The remainder, about $335 million would go to the U.S. Agency for International Development to help affected countries provide training to health workers, stimulate private sector research and help pregnant women gain access to repellant to protect against mosquitoes.

Check back for updates.