/ 7 April 2016

White House: $589m from Ebola to go to fight Zika virus

The Deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases
The Deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases

Most of the $589-million (about R8.9-billion) would be devoted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research on the virus and Zika-related birth defects, as well as the creation of response teams to limit its spread. The National Institutes of Health would continue research into a vaccine, and the United States Agency for International Development would intensify efforts to fight the virus overseas.

Researchers fear Zika causes microcephaly, a serious birth defect in which a baby’s head is too small, and poses other threats to the children of pregnant women infected with it.

US President Barack Obama has asked for about $1.9-billion in emergency money to fight Zika, but the request has stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. White House budget chief Shaun Donovan and health and human services secretary Sylvia Burwell told reporters that the administration still needs the full request to fight Zika and maintain vigilance on Ebola.

Burwell said there are 672 confirmed cases in US territories such as Puerto Rico and the United States, including 64 pregnant women. Zika can also be transmitted through sexual contact, and it’s estimated that 40 million people will travel between the US and countries with Zika outbreaks. – Andrew Taylor, AP

The officials said additional money must be approved to manufacture vaccines, purchase diagnostic tests and undertake mosquito control throughout the rainy season in Central America and the Caribbean, among other activities.

“There are real consequences and risks for waiting,” Donovan said.

While the administration has acknowledged that substantial Ebola funding is left over, it has already committed much of it to helping at least 30 other countries prevent, detect and respond to future outbreaks and epidemics. It also wants to preserve money to keep fighting Ebola should it flare up again.

“We face two real global health challenges, Ebola and Zika, and we don’t have an option to set one aside in the name of the other,” Burwell said.

There’s urgency to battle the Zika virus as summer weather leads to mosquito season and a potential broader spread of the virus.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans would regret stalling Obama’s funding request.

“At some point, they’re going to have to choose whether or not their animosity toward President Obama trumps their desire to try to protect pregnant women in their states from this terrible disease,” Earnest said.

Republicans had suggested the administration consider reshuffling existing funds and have said they are open to paying the money back in future legislation if it’s needed for Ebola or some other purposes.

Action on a stand-alone emergency spending bill seems improbable in the bitterly partisan atmosphere in Washington, though such funding could be attached to larger legislation later in the year.

Congress approved about $5-billion in 2014 to combat Ebola. – Andrew Taylor, AP