Congress' Zika battle set to ramp up in face of funding crunch

Zika virus spreads to Singapore and South East Asia
Zika virus spreads to Singapore and South East Asia


    Zika virus spreads to Singapore and South East Asia


Zika virus spreads to Singapore and South East Asia 04:04

Story highlights

  • Congress left for summer recess without agreeing on legislation
  • The Senate is set to vote on a $1.1 billion Zika bill Tuesday

(CNN)The fight over federal funding to combat the spread of the Zika virus is heating up on Capitol Hill as news cases of the infections are being confirmed in South Florida.

After consulting with public health officials, the White House sent Congress a $1.9 billion funding request in February to help fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's efforts to combat the virus, which can cause serious birth defects.
    But Congress left for summer recess without agreeing on legislation, as Democrats objected to riders that blocked funding for Planned Parenthood.
    "We're hopeful that when they do return, that Republicans in Congress will have had an opportunity to rethink their priorities and will once again put the health and safety and well-being of the American people back at the top of the list where it belongs," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
    The Senate is set to vote on a $1.1 billion Zika bill Tuesday, when Congress returns, but that bill includes the same Planned Parenthood rider that has angered Democrats. Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said that while Puerto Rico will get new funding for contraception and health care under the bill, that money would go to hospitals and community health centers, but not necessarily to Planned Parenthood.
    "They would rather have no funding than have funding that goes to hospitals and community health centers but not guaranteed to Planned Parenthood‎," Stewart said.
    An aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats would continue to block the bill.
    "Democrats have been calling for bipartisan negotiations for months, but instead of coming to the table, Republicans are holding a vote on a bill they know will fail," Adam Jentleson said. "Once this partisan exercise is over, we hope Republicans will finally engage in real negotiations to address this critical issue."

    Zika spreading in US

    The additional funds are taking on new urgency as two areas in Miami deal with nearly 50 cases of locally-transmitted infections. Heavy rains and flooding in other parts of the south such as Louisiana and Texas could also help the virus spread as mosquitoes take advantage of standing water.
    There are more than 2,500 travel-related cases of Zika in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
    "That's how you get local transmission, because when mosquitoes bite those people and then bite people who never left the United States, that's how you get local transmission of Zika," Fauci said during a Twitter town hall. Fauci echoed the administration's call for the $1.9 billion already requested to fund efforts to fight the virus.
    The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in early August in Puerto Rico, where officials reported 10,690 laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika as of August 12, including 1,035 pregnant women. The actual number of people infected with Zika likely is higher because most people with Zika infections have no symptoms and might not seek testing, the agency said.
    Earlier this month, HHS also redirected $81 million from elsewhere in the department to continue efforts to fight the Zika virus. HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that she was exercising her authority to transfer $34 million from within the National Institutes of Health and $47 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to keep "Zika-related activities" going. Without that, she said, the unused Ebola money they have been using since April will run out by the end of August and prohibit phase II of a Zika vaccine trial.

    CDC warns of consequences

    CDC Director Thomas Frieden is warning of dire consequences if there is not enough money to battle the virus, which causes only mild symptoms in most people but can be particularly harmful for pregnant women who risk giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition that causes a small head, brain damage and hearing loss. It has also been associated with other adverse pregnancy outcomes including miscarriage, stillbirth and serious neurological problems, according to HHS.
    "We don't have the resources we need to mount the kind of robust fight against the disease," Frieden said in the Twitter town hall Tuesday. "Without additional funding, we will not be able to fully understand the impact of Zika on pregnancy and newborns. We won't be able to develop better diagnostic tests as rapidly as we could and we won't be able to improve mosquito control to protect ourselves from Zika and other mosquito born illnesses."
    The CDC awarded $6.8 million to national public health organizations to help battle the virus through mosquito surveillance and epidemiology, vector control and communication and outreach programs and has provided states, cities and territories more than $100 million to date to fight Zika.
    Frieden said a vaccine is still at least two years away.
    "We hope Congress will fully fund the request," Frieden said. "That way, we can robustly and rapidly protect American women and their babies against Zika. It's important that his funding includes reimbursement authority and the authority that allows us to spend money efficiently and rapidly."