White House will transfer remaining Ebola dollars to Zika responses

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Reiterates call to Congress for full requested $1.9 billion Zika funding, authority to replenish Ebola funds

“Congress needs to act immediately. We should not play with fire here”

Saying they cannot risk waiting longer for Congress to supply emergency funding requested more than two months ago to respond to the spread of Zika virus and its accompanying impacts, Obama administration officials today said they would transfer money intended for ongoing Ebola responses to Zika research, development, surveillance, control, care and education efforts. The officials, heads of the office of Budget and Management, and Health and Human Services, as well as a deputy State department official called on Congress to supply the full $1.9 billion requested by the White House, and for authority to then replenish the Ebola funds.

The White House made its request in February, as rising rates of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in Brazil were followed by steep increases in numbers of babies born with microcephaly, and after a U.S. baby born with microcephaly tested positive for the virus. The World Health Organization had by then declared the spread of the virus and its apparent potential links to grave health impacts, to be an international health emergency. In the time since the White House made its request, consensus has only grown among scientists that the spread of the Zika virus in the Western hemisphere appears linked to increased incidence of neurological birth defects and other severe disorders.

“But, Congress has yet to act,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said today, In the meantime, he and other administration officials emphasized, the $589 million that the White House announced would be allocated to Zika efforts is insufficient to meet the demands of preventing, detecting and controlling the spread of the virus and its impacts.

Of 674 confirmed cases of Zika virus infection in the continental United States and United States territories, 64 are among pregnant women, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said today. Local transmission of the virus is ongoing in Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands and American Samoa, and is anticipated in the continental United States as the spring and summer months increase opportunities for mosquitoes carrying the virus to breed. Diagnostic tests, that can detect the virus earlier and deliver results faster are urgently needed, she said, and developing those tests must include efforts to ensure supply of the tests meets demand. Immediate funding also is needed to enable and accelerate research and development of a vaccine to protect against Zika infection, she said. In the meantime, efforts to reduce risks to pregnant women, support mosquito control, provide risk education, and ensure safe blood supplies are ongoing. Research is continuing to discover the health impacts of the virus, which, in addition to microcephaly and other neurological defects among newborns has been associated with rising rates of the paralyzing Guillain-Barre Syndrome. And, Burwell noted, “the plans we make may be outstripped by new developments.”

That has already been the case in efforts to respond to Ebola since its outbreak in West Africa reached crisis proportions in early 2014. Before the spread of that virus was largely contained towards the end of 2015, it had infected more than 28,000 people, killed more than 11,300, and in its impact on health service access and delivery accelerated the spread  and toll of other infectious diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in West Africa. With its toll including the deaths of at least 500 health workers in the most affected countries, it left shattered health systems before the implications of the long term persistence of the virus in an estimated 10,000 survivors began to be apparent. Findings that the virus can be sexually transmitted by people who have recovered from illness, persists in semen for a year or longer, can be found in ocular and spinal fluid for as yet undetermined lengths of time, and can cause re-emerging serious and transmissable illnesses have necessitated ongoing efforts to improve care, screening, monitoring and health system capacities in West Africa. Currently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring 12 Ebola patients in Guinea and Liberia, and tracing about 1,000 people who had contact with them. In addition, responders are administering an Ebola vaccine candidate in hopes of protecting partners, family members and care takers of survivors.

“We face two global health challenges,” Burwell said. “We can’t set one aside in favor of the other.”

Of the $589  million that will be re-allocated to Zika responses, administration officials said, $510 million will come from funding dedicated to Ebola responses, while $79 million will be moved within the Department of Health and Human Services from its strategic drug stockpile and other prevention programs responding to emerging and resurging health threats.

The dollars taken from Ebola funding should not be subtracted from the requested emergency funding for Zika responses, Donovan said. “Our $1.9 billion request remains a $1.9 billion request.” With the Zika funding still inadequate, the dollars taken from the Ebola funds still need to be replaced quickly for responses to that disease to be effective, Donovan said. “Congress needs to act immediately. We should not play with fire here.”

While much remains unknown about “the science and the scale” of both Ebola and Zika outbreaks, Burwell said, funding to fight both diseases is essential to “do what we know we need to do to protect our citizens and our territories.”

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