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Debate Grows Around House GOP's Zika-Funding Plan

On Thursday, June 23, 2016, House Republicans approved a bill which included a $1.1 billion fund to combat Zika. But, there’s one big drawback, according to Democrats.

On Thursday, June 23, 2016, House Republicans approved a bill which included a $1.1 billion fund to combat Zika. But there’s one big drawback, according to Democrats.

Controversy over Zika funds has been ongoing since February when the Obama Administration proposed a Zika plan that would grant $1.9 billion in funds to fight active viral transmission within the continental United States. Efforts to pass the bill were stalled for months since many believed that the virus is only harmful to a small portion of the population, and therefore not a priority. The recently approved Republican plan would repurpose Ebola funds as well as funds from the Obamacare program; the bill would grant approximately $400 million in new funds.

Although the House’s proposed Zika bill is not far from that approved by the Senate in mid-May, the limitations of the bill are what has Democrats concerned. According to the details of the bill, Zika funding will go towards mosquito-control efforts, diagnostics, and vaccine development. Funding would be provided to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Not on the list— funding to aid family-planning organizations, despite the fact that the greatest threat posed by the virus is to the fetuses of infected pregnant women.

Senate Democrats are refusing to support the bill that would grant $1.1 billion to combat Zika. Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader from Nevada, said in a statement, “A narrowly partisan proposal that cuts off women's access to birth control, shortchanges veterans and rescinds Obamacare funds to cover the cost is not a serious response to the threat from the Zika virus.”

The Zika virus has been confirmed by the CDC and the World Health Organization, to cause several neurological complications in developing fetuses of infected pregnant women, including microcephaly and blindness. Zika infection has also been said to contribute to stillbirths and miscarriages. Pregnant women are not only at risk of contracting the virus from the bite of an infected mosquito; it has also been confirmed that men can transmit a Zika infection to their partners through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Until now, concerns about the Zika virus have mostly surrounded pregnant women, but a new case in Brazil has brought to light additional concerns for adults.

Previously, Zika infection in adults was believed to result in mild symptoms, with 80% of patients being asymptomatic, and the remaining 20% presenting with symptoms such as rash, fever, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. However, in a recent case in Brazil, a 40-year-old male patient was diagnosed with what doctors believe to be Zika-related uveitis.

Uveitis is a condition of the inflammation of the eyes, a potentially severe eye condition. Although uveitis can be easily treated with eye drops, injections, or intravenous treatment, the disease may cause cataracts and high blood pressure in the eyes. Joao Furtado, MD, PhD, professor and infectious disease specialist at University of Sao Paulo was the lead author of the article that detailed the 40-year-old male patient’s condition, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. As detailed in the article, although the patient has made a full recovery, doctors are unsure whether others stricken with uveitis as a result of a Zika infection will have similar prognosis. The NIH is currently carrying out a study to help determine the full scope of a Zika virus infection.

The NIH has collaborated with a national scientific research organization that is linked to the Brazil Ministry of Health, Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz-Fiocruz (Fiocruz), to conduct a multi-national study that aims to calculate the risk that a Zika infection poses on pregnant women, their fetuses, and infants. The Zika in Infants and Pregnancy (ZIP) study will evaluate 10,000 women 15 years of age and older in their first trimester of pregnancy, from regions with active Zika transmission, such as Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Colombia. Those who are infected with Zika will be put under close observation in order to determine the outcomes of the infection in both the mother and fetus. Pregnancy progression will be analyzed and the outcomes of infected women will be compared to those who did not contract Zika. Researchers will be recording the rates of miscarriages, premature births, microcephaly, and malformations of the nervous system, among other things. After birth, the infants of the women included in the study will also be observed for one year. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), stated, “This large prospective study promises to provide important new data that will help guide the medical and public health responses to the Zika virus epidemic.”

Currently, 61 countries and territories worldwide are experiencing active Zika transmission, including Mexico, most Central American and Caribbean regions, and South America. At the moment, there are 820 imported cases of Zika virus infection within the continental United States (including Hawaii), and 1860 cases in American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. A total of 265 of the cases in the continental United States are pregnant women, as are 216 cases in the affected American territories.

It is likely that those already carrying the virus, due to travel to affected areas or sexual contact with those who reside in, or have traveled to, the affected areas, may infect the mosquito vector populations in currently unaffected areas in the continental United States.

NIAID will be funding ZIP along with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.