Congress Finally Approves Funding to Fight Zika Virus

More than 3,000 cases reported in continental U.S.

After months of bickering, Congress has agreed to allocate $1.1 billion toward curbing the spread of the Zika virus in the United States, according to a report from Kaiser Health News. The package is part of a larger spending bill to keep the federal government running until December 9. It comes as the virus is actively spreading in Florida. More than 3,000 cases have been reported in the continental U.S., although most were contracted by people traveling abroad.

The funding comes in two parts: almost $935 million has been allocated to curb Zika’s spread at home, while an additional $175 million is aimed at controlling Zika abroad.

Domestically, the money has been split among prevention, responding to the virus, and developing treatment. So far, there is no vaccine or cure for Zika virus infection.

Congress has approved $152 million for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is researching potential vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gets $394 million, which the agency can use in areas affected by Zika. Another $387 million is for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ public health emergency fund and will be used for activities such as providing Zika testing and caring for people who have contracted the virus.

That money will be essential in states and territories where Zika poses a threat, said Chris Gould, senior director for federal government relations at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. The CDC’s funds, for instance, could support programs that eliminate mosquitoes, monitor the virus, and educate people at risk.

“This amount, even though it’s long overdue, still will certainly go a long way in terms of helping states get what they need,” Gould said.

On the foreign-aid side, the money will go to the State Department to support activities such as evacuating eligible pregnant Americans from countries where Zika is spreading and helping hard-hit foreign nations address their own Zika issues.

The allocations fall short of the $1.9 billion President Barack Obama originally asked for, but the package is similar to one that the Senate proposed in May. The difference is increased funding for domestic efforts, with less for the State Department’s international programs.

The bill passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate in May hit a snag after the Republican-controlled House argued that Congress would have to offset any new funding—repurposing dollars intended for use elsewhere, for instance—and pressed to include language barring Planned Parenthood affiliates in Puerto Rico from receiving federal dollars. Planned Parenthood isn’t mentioned in the new agreement.

Approximately $400 million of the new package comes from repurposed money, much of it originally meant for combating the Ebola virus and for implementing provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Borrowing against Ebola funding is problematic, Dr. Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University, told Kaiser Health News. “That money is needed to fulfill our promise to be vigilant about Ebola,” he said.

Right now, states should be able to respond appropriately to Zika with the funds Congress has allocated, Gostin said, assuming that the virus does not suddenly spread more quickly than it has so far. But there needs to be an understanding that “when this money runs out, Zika may not run out,” Gostin said.

“We’re not going to measure Zika in this one cycle,” he added. “We’re talking years.”

Source: Kaiser Health News; September 29, 2016.