The Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to transfer $510 million in money allocated to fighting the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in west Africa to preventing a similar outbreak of Zika in the United States, officials announced Wednesday.
“We have two global public health crises, Ebola and Zika, and we can’t set one aside to deal with the other,” Health and Human Services Director Sylvia Burwell told reporters Wednesday. While some Zika cases have been documented in Africa, the majority of those in what medical experts have called a pandemic are occurring in Brazil and throughout Latin America. As the weather warms in the Northern Hemisphere, many fear a similar outbreak could occur in the United States.
ABC News reported Tuesday night that the White House would likely make the move to attempt to allocate Ebola funding towards Zika research, noting that President Barack Obama had previously asked Congress to appropriate $1.9 billion to Zika prevention and awareness, but the process to have that money approved will be long, and health officials are demanding precautionary measures take place as soon as possible.
White House officials nonetheless reiterated that they hope to see Congress pass an appropriations bill to fund even more Zika research despite this latest move. “Today we reiterate our call on Congress to take immediate action to provide the full requested amount. We must scale up Zika prevention activity right now,” White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Shaun Donovan told reporters. “Nearly two months have passed and the situation continues to grow more critical.”
Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Florida have all declared states of emergency over the Zika outbreak. Zika is transmitted through the bite of the aedes aegypti mosquito, which thrives in hot, humid climates.
NBC notes that America has documented almost 700 Zika cases, about half of which occurred in Puerto Rico. At least 64 of these cases have been pregnant women, who are particularly vulnerable to the damage Zika can cause. While Zika infection itself causes mild symptoms — and is asymptomatic in 80 percent of cases — health experts have found that the virus has the capacity to cause severe neurological damage in an unborn child. Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a deformity in which the infant’s brain is crushed by an underdeveloped skull. Publicity surrounding the potential of Zika to cause brain damage in infants has led some American women to choose to abort their pregnancies rather than give birth to a special needs child. It has also led an increasing number of women to request a Zika test from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to confirm whether they are carrying the virus (most cases have been negative).
The precise link between Zika and microcephaly remains little understood, however. Brazil is currently investigating 5,000 cases of microcephaly linked to Zika, but Colombia — which has been similarly hard-hit by Zika — has documented little more than 30. In other parts of Latin America, microcephaly remains uncommon, but Zika patients are being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder causing intense muscular pain, paralysis, and death in adults.
While the number of Zika cases is skyrocketing, reappropriating Ebola funds to fight a new virus leaves many questions unanswered regarding international aid for the ongoing Ebola fight. While the disease is spreading at a much slower rate than at the outbreak’s height in 2014, Guinea and Liberia are still documenting deaths due to Ebola. In the most recent flare-up, Guinea has recorded eight deaths so far. Most alarmingly, the government of Guinea has identified 1,300 people who have had contact with the eight Ebola victims, and 242 “high-risk contacts.”
Ebola has also returned to Liberia through a woman who traveled to Monrovia from Guinea after her husband died of unknown causes. Her three children are being closely monitored for Ebola symptoms, and one has tested positive for Ebola so far. Liberia has identified 84 potential cases in individuals who have had contact with the affected family. Liberia had initially closed its border with Guinea following news of the first new Ebola case, but later reopened it.
While Sierra Leone, the third west African country affected by the Ebola outbreak, has yet to document a new case, its government is on high alert. Sierra Leone’s Awareness Times reported on Monday that President Ernest Koroma has reactivated Ebola emergency response mechanisms and deployed military aid to border police to help with screening and surveillance of potential Ebola cases attempting to cross the border.