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Gulf states see new Zika cases as Obama pushes to 'reprogram' Ebola funds

Florida officials logged another new confirmed case of the Zika virus on April 11, as Congress mulled a request to move $600 million in Ebola response money to help local communities combat a potential outbreak of Zika in the United States.

“We have to be vigilant,” Dr. Jim McVay of the Alabama Department of Health told AMI Newswire. “Certainly mosquitoes can carry disease, so we have to have communities be mindful of this and take appropriate action to try and minimize exposure to mosquitoes."

The Zika-carrying mosquito is capable of migrating to, and surviving in, the U.S. Gulf Coast states.

Though the first outbreaks occurred in Brazil, the CDC has confirmed Zika-carrying mosquitoes as far north as Mexico, though it has not published information on how far north or in what density the insects were found.

President Obama requested that $600 million be pulled from funds earmarked to combat the Ebola virus in order to address the growing threat to the U.S. border from Zika.

The request to “reprogram” the Ebola funds, announced on April 6, comes less than a week after testing by the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the reemergence of the disease in a community just outside of Monrovia, Liberia.

Experts, testifying on the status of Ebola response before a Senate subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy April 7, criticized the U.S. government’s budgeting methods in response to global health crises. Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development (CGD) said that Congress should look into means to keep a permanent level of flexible funding for outbreaks such as Ebola or Zika.

“We need to ditch the ad hoc interagency task forces and emergency budget requests,” Glassman said.

In February, Obama requested Congress to authorize $1.8 billion in emergency funds to combat the Zika virus. Zika was identified in Brazil last May, and was upgraded to the highest level of response from the WHO Feb 8. Though the virus has little impact on adult patients, it is associated with a condition known as microcephaly, or underdeveloped head that often includes a smaller brain, in children born from women infected with the virus.

The Obama administration warned that the mosquito-borne virus required states to conduct pesticide-spraying operations to stem the flow of the virus. McVay said Alabama had not conducted any kind of cost analysis to control for Zika on a statewide level. 

Last week, the administration met with state and local health officials in Atlanta to discuss options for responding to Zika.

“We heard from states that they're keenly aware of the threat that the disease poses,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in an April 6 press conference. “Many do not have the money that they need for basic tasks that would prevent the spread of Zika.”

As of April 6, the CDC had confirmed 346 cases of the virus in the U.S., with concentrations particularly in New York and Florida. All of the cases came from people who had traveled to Zika-affected areas and were presumed to have contracted the virus there. Alabama has two confirmed cases, and had representatives in attendance at the meeting in Atlanta, according to McVay.

“Each individual community may or may not choose to do mosquito spraying; there is no statewide program to address mosquito control,” McVay said. “There is wide variety, from counties that don’t do anything to some that have some form of mosquito spraying program.”

Only a day after Obama’s request for $600 million, health officials testified before the Senate subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy on the need to continue funding the battle against Ebola. In addition to CGD, the panel included representatives from Doctors Without Borders, Last Mile Health and a private sector group representing businesses in the Ebola-affected region. Member echoed the importance of maintaining funding levels to keep outbreaks from re-occurring.

“The next outbreak is a matter of when, not if,” Glassman testified.

Liberia, which was among the hardest hit by the 2014 Ebola outbreak that killed more 11,000 people, including two in the U.S., was declared “Ebola-free” last May. Since then, the country has experienced three more outbreaks, including the latest case.

The request puts the House in a tricky position, mired as it is in the depths of a months-long appropriations process aimed at developing a federal budget that meets the terms of a controversial agreement last fall between Obama and former House speaker John Boehner.

Last year’s appropriation bill, signed by Obama in January, included over $5 billion in funding to fight Ebola.

The House Appropriations Committee in February rejected a request for $1.8 billion from the administration for Zika response funding, suggesting money should first be drawn from the $2.7 billion left over from the Ebola funding. The leftover amount was the combined total of funds allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Department.

Florida’s latest confirmed case comes from Lee County, joining three other confirmed cases. Most of the state’s 33 cases occurred Miami-Dade county.

An official with the Florida Department of Health told AMI Newswire he was not authorized to speak about the costs of controlling Zika in the state.