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GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico - U.S. President Barack Obama sent a strong message to Puerto Ricans on Sunday, urging them in a video to take the Zika virus seriously.
"Hello everybody. Saludos a la gente de Puerto Rico," Obama began his video message in Spanish.
"Today I want to talk to you about Zika, because it is something that everyone in Puerto Rico needs to be taking seriously," Obama warned in his nearly two-minute message. "Right now, as you know, the virus is present on almost every part of the island. Thousands of people are already infected."
The message comes as statistics reveal 7,296 cases of the virus have been confirmed on the island, across all 78 municipalities. Among them are 788 pregnant women, the population most at risk from the illness.
Given the number of reported cases, Obama stressed that the virus has spread across much of the island and urged "everyone to take action."
He urged protection against mosquito bites, noting that many infected people experience only mild symptoms, but that everyone should take the virus seriously. He stressed that pregnant women and those who plan to become pregnant are most at risk, because the virus has been linked to serious birth defects and neurological disorders in newborns.
"Make no mistake, the threat from Zika is real," Obama said. "That's why I'm taking this so seriously as president… that's why you have to take it seriously, too."
He added: "If we are to protect Puerto Rico’s next generation, we need everyone to take action," encouraging the public to use mosquito repellent and remove standing water to prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs.
Puerto Rico governor thanks Obama for his support
In a written statement, Governor Alejandro García Padilla thanked Obama for his words about Zika in Puerto Rico, and called for joint efforts to combat the epidemic.
"I thank President Obama for his call last night for Puerto Ricans to become aware of the seriousness of the Zika virus,” García Padilla said. "His message is a successful response to our request … [for] support in controlling the spread of this virus."
"My administration has executed an action plan against the virus since the first case was detected in Puerto Rico," García Padilla said. "This plan, which involves joining forces with federal agencies, has included guidance, distribution of educational materials and products to prevent infection and interagency efforts to detect and eliminate the potential sources of mosquitoes."
"But despite these efforts, cases have continued to rise rapidly, making more aggressive initiatives an imperative," he continued. "These are being evaluated now by relevant agencies and proactive citizens. Zika represents a real threat to the public health of our country, specifically for pregnant women. I reiterate my initial call, echoing President Obama in his expression: Puerto Ricans should assume individual responsibility and together try to control the spread of this virus. Awareness and citizen participation is essential to support government efforts in order to avoid a dramatic increase in birth defects among our population."
Puerto Rico’s health minister responds
But Health Department Secretary Ana Ríus said that Obama's message contained nothing new, and that it's the same information that her department and other agencies on the island have been sending out about the virus.
Calling the message a "lecturing," Ríus said Monday she thought Obama's call to Puerto Ricans about Zika may have been in response to García Padilla's July 22 announcement that Puerto Rico would not use the controversial insecticide Naled to fight mosquitoes.
"We have always taken the disease seriously," Ríus said in an interview with Univision’s WKAQ 580 radio on Monday (in Spanish). Ríus also stressed that Obama did not say anything new about the issue.
"I think this may have come as a result of the decisions that were taken not to use Naled," the official said. "His suggestions to Puerto Ricans are the same things we have been saying everyday since the beginning of this disease in December 2015: use insect repellent, prevent mosquito breeding sites, cooperate and protect pregnant women, take care of yourself, used prophylactics, try not to get pregnant."