CDC, State Department urge Congress to take action on Zika funding before summer break

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Dr. Tom Frieden and Susan Blumenthal of New America

Dr. Tom Frieden and Susan Blumenthal of New America

In February, when the Obama Administration proposed a $1.9 billion package to respond to the Zika outbreak, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden heard it might take three months for Congress to approve it, and he was shocked. Five months later, with the Zika supplemental bill still mired in bipartisan gridlock while more than 3,600 Americans have been confirmed to be infected with the virus, including 600 pregnant women, Frieden is at a loss for words, he said yesterday at an event hosted by New America.

“Speed really matters,” Frieden said, adding, “It mattered when it came to Ebola and we lost 9,000 lives after inaction.”

The Senate has until the end of today to pass the supplemental funding bill before going into a summer recess for two months. With Democrats objecting to what Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called “poison pill’ provisions in the bill yesterday at a hearing, including barring funding to be used for family planning, and Republicans unwilling to reopen negotiations, it remains unclear if any action will be taken to get the proposed $1.1 billion to federal agencies and local governments to respond to the outbreak as the summer drags on.

This week dozens of organizations joined in a letter to Congressional leaders to pass supplemental funding as soon as possible. Click here to read.

If the funding bill isn’t passed this week before Congress goes into recess, the CDC won’t be able to accelerate mosquito control strategies, such as developing safer repellents the aedes aegypti mosquito is not resistant to, or think about long-term projects to protect pregnant women, Frieden said. They also won’t be able to repay money borrowed from emergency response funds from states, which are meant to fund natural disaster responses and other emergencies, Frieden said.

“We had to take $38 million from the Ebola response to reprogram for Zika,” Frieden said.

“We need that money back,” he said, adding, “As late as March we had another cluster of cases after we found a survivor can still spread it 15 months later – we need the money for contact tracing,” along with the unfinished work of strengthening health systems in affected countries, he said.

With the resources they have now, USAID can provide support to five priority countries the agency is assisting now for a few more months, Irene Koek of USAID said, but won’t be able to expand beyond those countries without additional funding. Currently, USAID is providing antenatal and postnatal care, family planning services, vector control activities, and are communicating Zika prevention messages in Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic – countries chosen due to “predicted number of cases, with relatively weaker government capacity to respond to those cases,” she said on Wednesday in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Without additional resources, we would be forced to choose between cutting off programming before it can have lasting impact in priority countries or eliminating any impact beyond the priority countries,” Koek said. With more funding, USAID plans to roll out assistance in Nicaragua, Jamaica, Paraguay, and Peru, she said.

The State Department won’t have enough money to provide medical evacuations for Foreign Service officers and other State Department employees, Judith Garber of the State Department said. They also won’t be able to communicate Zika prevention and control messages to Americans in endemic countries, she said, and won’t be able to make contributions to multilateral organizations like the WHO.

“I am so disgusted with this situation,” Senator Boxer said.

“House Republicans didn’t let any Democrats in their conference, and came out with a bill that restricts funding for birth control in the United States, even though they know it’s a part of first line defense,” she said.

“It’s bad enough they cut funding for Ebola, which could rise up again,” she said.

To combat global health emergency funding disappearing through the “black hole of bipartisanship,” Boxer said, she proposed legislation that would create an emergency public health fund of $3 billion that would allow the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to address global health threats “without putting politics in the middle.”

Frieden said that and more needs to be done to respond to the “new normal” of emerging global health threats. Countries need assistance to build their capacity to prevent, detect and respond to threats as they emerge instead of responding months later, after thousands die, he said.

“We need to close the gaps,” he said. “A blind spot anywhere in the world is a risk to everyone.”

“SARS, MERS, the Avian flu, Ebola, Zika, the next HIV – 100 percent there will be another threat.”

Stay tuned to Science Speaks for Zika funding updates.

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