On Wednesday (April 6), the Obama administration announced plans to shift nearly $600 million in funds designated to battle the Ebola epidemic toward the fight against Zika.
Zika, a mosquito-borne infection first identified in 1947, has generated worldwide headlines
since a new outbreak of the virus was reported in Brazil in August 2014. Since then, more than 5,000 cases have been confirmed in the South American nation alone, and the virus has reportedly spread to other regions in Latin America and the Caribbean. To date, there have been 672 cases of Zika virus infection in the US and its territories (including Puerto Rico
); most of them have been diagnosed in persons who have travelled to affected countries.
“We’ve made important progress to keep Americans safe from these public health threats here and abroad, but these efforts need to continue and they can’t be stopped or shortchanged,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Sylvia M. Burwell, said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “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.”
Indeed, although there have been cases of Ebola reported recently
in rural Guinea and other regions in western Africa, the virus is largely viewed to be under control, after more than 15,000 confirmed cases and 11,000 fatalities. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared last month that Ebola no longer constituted a public health emergency, as “the risk of international spread is now low.” At the same time, the WHO’s Emergency Committee convened in response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 also reported that countries “now have the capacity to respond rapidly to new virus emergencies.”
The Associated Press initially broke the story of President Obama’s plans to allocate $589 million of previously earmarked Ebola funds earlier this week. Political newspaper The Hill
has reported in the past that the President’s attempts to have $1.9 billion in federal funds allocated toward efforts to control the spread of Zika have been rebuffed by Congress, in spite of calls from healthcare advocacy groups to approve emergency funding measures to protect pregnant women and encourage research on the virus and a possible vaccine.
The Zika virus in and of itself is not fatal; however, it carries with it troubling complications. Both the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, have released specific warnings about the risks
for pregnant women associated with exposure to Zika because the virus is associated with microcephaly and loss of pregnancy. To date, more than 2,500 cases of microcephaly, or incomplete brain development, have been linked with the Zika virus, which can be transmitted to otherwise healthy individuals via sexual contact with an infected person.
White House budget chief, Shaun Donovan, on the same conference call with Burwell, told reporters that the Obama administrated decided to act now rather than wait for Congressional action because “there are real consequences and risks for waiting.”
Congress initially approved $5 billion in federal funds to combat Ebola in 2014.
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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