Why We Need More Funding to Fight the Zika Virus

Congress came back from its summer break this week and once again, failed to pass funding for the fight against the Zika virus. The situation is getting more urgent, with mosquitoes on the U.S. mainland now carrying the disease. Florida has seen 56 infections from local mosquitoes and thousands have gotten Zika from traveling abroad. There have already been 16 infants born in the continental U.S. with Zika, a number that will only rise from here.

The debate over Zika funding has been raging since March, when the White House called for $1.9 billion to help fight the spread of the virus. Congress whittled that down to a $1.1 billion bill that’s gone nowhere due to a political stalemate. Republicans tacked a rider onto the bill that would block Puerto Rico’s Planned Parenthood from getting any of the funding to help stop sexual transmission of the virus, and Democrats won’t vote the bill through with this rider attached. Puerto Rico has been the hardest hit U.S. territory, with almost 14,000 cases so far.

With the current bill looking unlikely to pass, Congress has until the end of the month to figure out another way to fund the fight against Zika before it breaks for election season. In the meantime, the Zika crisis continues and the agencies’ funds are dwindling.

Public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health, are currently running on fumes to fight the growing Zika crisis. The CDC has moved $38 million over from Ebola funding and $44 million from emergency response funds. Of the total $222 million the agency had allocated for Zika, it’s already spent $200 million of that, according to CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden.

I spoke with Dr. Frieden today about the consequences if the CDC doesn’t receive the funding it urgently needs.

“If we don’t get the money we need from Congress it means we won’t be able to support state and local governments to test women and others for Zika virus,” he told me. “We won’t be able to learn more about the disease. We won’t be able to control mosquitoes more effectively.”

So far, the CDC has been trying to track every pregnant woman with Zika, which it estimates is up to 584 in the U.S. states and 812 in the U.S. territories, with the majority in Puerto Rico.

CDC’s anti-Zika efforts aren’t the only programs that will suffer if Congress isn’t able to find money for the issue. The National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) will have to put efforts to develop a Zika vaccine on hold. The agency already has several promising candidates, including one that’s currently in Phase 1 of human trials. But if the agency doesn’t get funding by the end of September, it won’t be able to move on to Phase 2 of the trials, according to Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID.

Funding to fight Zika has broad support from the public, with a new survey from March of Dimes showing that 74 percent of Americans favor increased federal funding for research to prevent the spread of Zika. If you’re one of these people, don’t be afraid to let your representatives in Congress know that you support an urgent solution to Zika funding. I’ll be calling my representatives.

For more information on the virus and to find out who is at risk and how to protect yourself, visit the CDC’s Zika Virus page, which is updated daily.

Look out for our big show on Zika, with interviews with Dr. Frieden of the CDC, Anthony Fauci of NIAID, and all the information you need to know to stay safe, next week.