The day after both houses of Congress voted to fund Zika responses only at the expense of addressing ongoing challenges posed by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the World Health Organization has confirmed that the strain of Zika now spreading in the West Africa island nation of Cabo Verde is the form of the virus linked to outbreaks of microcephaly and other neurological impacts in the Americas.
While Zika was first identified in Uganda and appeared in sporadic human cases in sub-Saharan Africa in the decades that followed, the virus was not linked to large outbreaks or to birth defects and serious illness until it appeared in Pacific Island nations and territories in a more damaging form. Scientists have identified that virus as a newer Asian strain, differentiating it from the one discovered in Africa.
Cabo Verde, with a population of about 499,000 people, reported its first Zika cases in October 2015 and is now home to 7,557 suspected cases. At least three cases of microcephaly have followed the outbreak there, according to WHO. The WHO finding puts the outbreak that has caused more than 1,400 babies to be born with stunted heads and brains in the Americas “on the doorstep of Africa,” as the statement releasing the news puts it.
The West Africa nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have all continued to see ongoing transmission of and re-merging illnesses caused by the Ebola virus, while struggling to rebuild health systems and economies devastated by the outbreak of that disease that killed more than 11,000 people, at least 500 of them trained health workers. The Ebola crisis in West Africa also saw spikes in incidence of and deaths from other illnesses, including HIV and tuberculosis, as fragile health systems became overwhelmed by the outbreak.
WHO promises in its statement today that, with support from member nations, it will help countries in the region to bolster preparations for Zika detection, surveillance and response. “The response will build on investments in strengthened systems made in West Africa during the Ebola emergency,” the WHO statement says.
Those investments, though, hit a snag in April when nearly two months after asking Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to Zika and receiving no answer, the White House directed $589 million dollars from Ebola response-dedicated funds as well as other dedicated public health dollars to efforts to fight the new outbreak. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate finally responded to the White House request, with the subtraction of the redirected funding, while the House of Representatives voted to supply less than a third of the White House request with $622 million for Zika responses, $352 million coming from additional funding that had been allotted for Ebola responses.