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Puerto Rico Confronts Spread Of Zika Virus Amid Debt Crisis

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we mentioned, there are 157 cases of pregnant women with Zika across the continental U.S, and there are 122 additional cases in U.S. territories, mainly Puerto Rico. Zika's threats come at a time when Puerto Rico is trying to pay off a massive debt. Workers who helped with mosquito control have been laid off, and the island's health care system is stretched.

We're joined now by Hector Colon. He's deputy director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response in Puerto Rico. Welcome to the program.

HECTOR COLON: Thank you.

CORNISH: How accurate do you think these figures are? Do you think there are many more pregnant women who may be affected by Zika and it may be going unreported?

COLON: Well, we believe that since 80 percent of the Zika cases present no symptoms, definitely there is more people that have the disease. On the other hand, we are paying special attention to pregnant women, and we offer them to do the test for free. So even if they have no symptoms, we offer them to take the test and check for Zika.

CORNISH: So the CDC has a lab on the island. You're talking about free testing for women. Do you know how many people have been signing up for it, what kind of response you're getting?

COLON: Well, mostly pregnant women are going for the test. We have over 15,000 pregnant women in the island. And the ones that test positive - we actually monitor them very closely. And so far, thank God, the kids that have been born have no microcephaly problems.

CORNISH: So so far you haven't seen any instances of birth defects related to Zika or...

COLON: None.

CORNISH: Now, I gather there are a lot of public health messages posted everywhere. Are people taking them seriously? Are people protecting themselves?

COLON: Well, we also have endemic diseases. We have dengue and chikungunya. And we have had dengue for more than 30 years now, so people in the island are used to using repellent and appropriate clothes to avoid the mosquito bites. And also, most of the people have screens in their houses. But the people is concerned.

However, as I said before, 80 percent of the people present no symptoms. People in the island are not so scared of the disease, I would say.

CORNISH: Now, we heard at the end of our previous piece the call from President Obama to get the Zika funding bill passed. So what would you say to members of Congress right now who are debating this Zika funding bill?

COLON: Well, I would say we don't know a lot about Zika. It would be good if efforts are directed into research and see, how can we learn more about the disease? How can we go over vector control activities, or how can we incentivate vector control activities, which is the basic of the problem, I think.

CORNISH: And you're saying the words vector control. You mean, how can you deal with the spread of the mosquitoes infecting the mosquitoes across the island.

COLON: Right. If we don't have the mosquito, we don't have the disease.

CORNISH: Hector Colon - he's deputy director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response in Puerto Rico. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

COLON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.