In an attempt to combat the rapid spread of the Zika virus, federal officials have decided to shift approximately $500 million from Ebola prevention programs. The shift comes after Congress was bogged down in a two month debate over the approval of a $1.9 billion budget proposed by the Obama administration.
On February 1 of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the spread of the Zika virus in Brazil was a “public health emergency of international concern”. A major component of the spread of Zika is the fact that those infected display serious novel symptoms, which include rash, conjunctivitis, fever, and joint pain. Zika possesses a generally low mortality rate, with those who recover becoming resistant to further infections.
Pregnant women are advised to take extreme caution when visiting Brazil or other Latin American and Caribbean countries where Zika has spread. From August to October of 2015, Brazil’s own Ministry of Health conducted a study to test the relationship between mothers infected with Zika and infant microcephaly, and revealed that in a sample of 35 infants, “71% [of those] infants had severe microcephaly”. Microcephaly is a severe birth defect that causes smaller head size than average, which can lead to developmental issues, including abnormal brain development.
The repurposing of Ebola funds has caused a divisive split in Congress. Representatives from both political parties are torn between funding the shrinking epidemic of Ebola and preventing the spread of Zika. The current Ebola funding is being used to run trials for potential vaccines and continue to fund treatment centers.
Opponents of the fund transfer, like the director of the Center for Disease Control Dr. Tom Frieden, argue that “it would be dangerous to let our guard down.” Ebola has already resurfaced in the African nation of Guinea, where it has killed five people. Frieden continues to argue with Congress that the removal of health systems in Ebola-stricken countries could have deadly implications. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, one of the many Democrats siding against the fund transfer, says “we cannot abandon this fight simply because the threat appears to be diminished.”
As Zika slowly creeps out of the Caribbean and into American territories, including Puerto Rico, Congress has found itself in an extremely difficult position. Among the groups supporting the fund transfer, Republicans argue that there is already ample funding for both Zika and Ebola. Speaker of the House and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan says “money that is not going to Ebola, that was already in the pipeline, that can go immediately to Zika.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy supports Ryan’s argument, adding “now that the World Health Organization has announced an end to the Ebola public health emergency, it is time to reprioritize and use these funds for today's challenges.”
Currently, there are 700 Americans infected with the Zika virus, according to Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Burwell. Of the 700, 325 were citizens in Puerto Rico, where health officials are bracing for a serious outbreak; a CDC health center devoted to studying dengue virus has been repurposed to instead study Zika. In a series of recently published maps, the CDC has shown that the species of mosquito most likely to carry Zika, Aedes aegypti, could be found in major US cities in the upcoming summer months, as far north as New York City and San Francisco. "I think it is a concern for the nation," says Burwell.
The problem of funding is further complicated by Congress voting to go into recess for Easter on March 23. While in recess, Congress was unable to vote on the proposed budgets, which spurred federal officials to act in a more aggressive manner. Both Ebola and Zika are very much present and active in the world, and an American response has never been more needed. The public health of nations, as well as the personal health of the infected, relies on effective and expedient action, which Congress as of late has been unable to provide.