The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded more than $16 million to 40 states and territories to establish, enhance, and maintain information-gathering systems to enable real-time, population-based monitoring for microcephaly and other birth defects caused by the Zika virus.

So far, more than 1,600 Zika-related cases have been reported in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, while more than 4,700 cases have been treated in the U.S. territories.

Con­cerned about a nationwide out­break and a potential epidemic, the CDC funding is meant to ensure that the system infrastructure is in place to provide public health surveillance capabilities in those states and territories that are most susceptible to Zika infection.

According to CDC officials, it is critical for these states and territories to be able to quickly detect microcephaly—a serious neurological birth defect characterized by a smaller than normal head—and other adverse outcomes caused by the mosquito-borne illness.

Bloomberg file photo

“Zika virus infection during pregnancy poses a serious threat to the fetus and can cause microcephaly, and because of that, it is urgent that we monitor rapidly and completely birth defects that might be related to Zika,” says Margaret Honein, chief of the CDC’s Birth Defects Branch and co-lead on the Pregnancy and Birth Defects Task Force in the agency’s Zika response.

“CDC has awarded funds to states that are at high risk of having Zika virus infections, either travel-related or—in a few cases—the possibility of local transmission,” adds Honein. “We are working closely with state health departments to set up a system for rapidly ascertaining the serious birth defects, monitoring them over time, and ensuring that infants and their families are referred to appropriate services.”

Honein, an epidemiologist, describes the initiative as a birth defects surveillance system. However, unlike other systems that are “meticulous” in their deployment, she says the Zika outbreak requires an expedited implementation around the country, putting a priority on tracking the health and developmental outcomes of children affected by Zika.

“We want to do all of that quality control, but this will be done much more quickly,” says Honein.

Funding amounts for the 40 states and territories receiving the assistance range from $200,000 to $720,000, and were based on their risk of Zika virus transmission as well as their current birth defects surveillance capabilities.

According to Honein, some states and territories are more advanced and will only require modest infrastructure improvements, while others will need surveillance systems built from the ground up. Nonetheless, she points out that these awards are meant to serve as a stopgap diverted from other public health resources until Zika funds are provided by Congress.

Late last month, the American Medical Association—the nation’s largest physician organization—called on the Obama administration and Congress to take immediate action to support a public health response to the Zika virus.

“Congress and the Administration must act as quickly as possible to ensure that our country is able to deploy the kind of public health response necessary to keep our citizens safe and healthy,” said AMA President Andrew Gurman, MD.

Honein concludes: “We haven’t yet received any appropriations for Zika, but CDC is doing the best it can with available funding to meet the most urgent needs.”

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