Expert worries U.S. Zika outbreak could be "public health equivalent of Katrina"

President Obama announced Monday he is pumping $589 million into the battle against Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes and linked to birth defects in children. And he's calling on Congress to provide nearly $2 billion more.

More than 312 cases have been reported in 41 states, all of them linked to travel outside the U.S. But with mosquito season here, that could change -- and soon.

Tropical disease expert Dr. Peter Hotez has been warning for months that poor neighborhoods on the Gulf Coast are similar to poor neighborhoods in Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika pandemic.

Broken screens, lack of air conditioning, and standing water make for perfect breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika.

"If you look to see where Zika is devastating families, mothers and their unborn babies or their newborn babies throughout the Americas, it's in the areas of extreme poverty," Dr. Hotez said.

Hotez is worried the U.S. is not prepared to fight the Zika virus, despite Wednesday's commitment of over $500 million.

Congress still hasn't approved a $1.9 billion dollar request, and with warm weather fast approaching Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH said he's not waiting any longer.

"I'm taking money from other areas that we fund in order to fund the very important Zika research, particularly the Zika vaccine research."

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is most often found in the south, but a new CDC map indicates its potential to reach as far north as New York and Ohio.

The biggest concern is for pregnant women. In Brazil, Zika virus has been linked with microcephaly, babies born with an abnormally small head and brain.

The administration says the new funding will go towards vaccine development as well as mosquito surveillance and control.

"There's no such thing as a small outbreak of Zika," Hoetz warned.

"If you start seeing babies with microcephaly on the Gulf Coast of the United States, it is going to be a public health crisis. It will be the public health equivalent of Katrina."

If, as expected, the Zika virus makes its way into the mosquito population here, the administration says it's going to need the full $1.9 billion it requested from Congress in February in order to fight it.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook