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US may be severely underestimating Zika's potential impact; costs could be in the billions

The Zika virus stands to cost the United States billions of dollars, even if few people are infected.

Researchers from several American institutions have calculated that the "virus from Hell" could result in total costs ranging from $183 million to over $1.2 billion, depending on infection rates in several at-risk states in the South.

The researchers warn that infection rates could engender costs that exceed the amounts of money the U.S. government may give for prevention and treatment, if the recent debates over funding are any indication.

"We had the sense that Congress was really not aware of the depth and breath of the vulnerability of the Gulf Coast regions," study co-author Dr. Peter Hotez said in an interview with CNBC.

"One of the problems is we do not do active surveillance for Zika along the Gulf Coast," said Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine . "So we still do not know the true number of cases that happened last year. And we are not going to know that until we see the number of babies born with birth defects due to Zika going into the summer months. So we are not out of the woods yet, with respect to last year's epidemic."

And periods of warm weather over the last several months have coincided with higher numbers of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the virus, leaving scientists wondering where Zika could spread next.

The team published its results Thursday in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

The researchers focused on various levels of infection across Alabama...