The Cable

White House Shifts Ebola Funds to Try to Stop Spread of Zika

HHS chief says Zika's arrival in the U.S. is a matter of when, not if.

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The White House isn’t waiting for Congress to act on an emergency $1.9 billion funding request to fight the Zika virus. Instead, it’s using money meant to fight Ebola to stop the mosquito-transmitted virus that has been linked to birth defects.

On Wednesday, Obama administration officials said they were allocating $589 million — including $510 million earmarked to fight Ebola — toward programs seeking to stop the spread of the Zika virus in the United States. In perhaps the most pressing American warning to date about the virus, which is linked to microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head and brain are too small, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said Zika will inevitably become more widespread in the United States later this year.

“There will likely be local transmissions in the continental U.S. in the spring and summer,” Burwell said. Additionally, she said, there have been 672 confirmed cases in the United States and its territories, including 64 cases in pregnant women. One child has been born in the U.S. with the Zika-related birth defect.

These numbers are up dramatically from previous Center for Disease Control estimates. Just several weeks ago, at the end of March, the CDC reported 349 cases in the U.S. and its territories, including 37 pregnant women.

“We will move quickly on all fronts,” the HHS chief said. “This money can get us started.”

The shift in funds comes as more evidence emerges that Ebola — which two years ago ignited  global panic after overwhelming public health systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — has yet to be fully eradicated. Ebola has infected more than 28,000 people, and killed more than 11,000 in West Africa. It has yet to be eradicated there, with a new outbreak announced in Liberia just days ago.

Without congressional action, Burwell said it will be difficult for the U.S. to develop a vaccine to Zika, which is rooted in Africa and has already spread to the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and South America. She said there’s a need to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, and control mosquito populations as the peak season for the bug arrives. Burwell urged pregnant women not to have sex with men exposed to the virus — it can be sexually transmitted — and said people should take measures to protect themselves from mosquitoes.

“As a nation we should do what we know we need to do,” Burwell said.

Burwell urged the public not to panic over Zika. But, at the same time, she said it could reach as far north as San Francisco, Kansas City, and New York. And if the virus begins to spread in the United States, it could be hard to stop people from overreacting, simply because it’s hard to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes during their peak season.

Whether the Obama administration will get bitterly-divided lawmakers in Congress to act remains to be seen. Republicans have urged President Barack Obama to reshuffle existing funds to fight Zika.

The heightened warning about Zika comes as the summer Olympics in Brazil approaches.  The virus is widespread in Brazil, and U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo has said she wouldn’t travel there because of concerns about contracting it.

When asked whether Americans should reconsider plans to travel to Brazil, Burwell wouldn’t rule it out. “That is a very large concern for the nation,” she said.

Photo credit: MARIO TAMA/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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