Even as Congress seems to be moving closer to a resolution on funding a means to stop the spread of the Zika virus, the Obama administration is demanding more immediate action.
Yet, some critics say it is the administration, including President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, that have failed to act strongly and is allocating disproportionate resources internationally when about 2,000 Zika cases have been reported in the United States.
More than half of the diagnosed cases have been in the territory of Puerto Rico, but also a significant number in Florida, New York, and California have also had a large number of diagnosed cases. The mosquito risk is also considered high in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
@Betsy_McCaughey says, “This is not the time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to other countries.”
“For President Obama and Secretary Burwell to chastise Congress is outrageous considering that just one-third of the money [Obama and Burwell] are requesting is going to the 50 states,” Betsy McCaughey, chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a nonprofit group that educates hospitals and advocates to government on how to fight infectious diseases, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview.
In February, Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion to stop the spread of Zika by fighting the mosquito population and equipping public health offices in the United States and in South and Central America. The House has responded with a $622 million bill offset by other reductions in federal spending, but the Senate bill funds $1.1 billion of Obama’s request, with no spending reductions elsewhere.
“Puerto Rico and territories are our responsibility, but $500 million would go to South and Central America, while state and local health departments lack the resources to test pregnant women and for mosquito prevention,” McCaughey, a former New York lieutenant governor who has been on the board of medical equipment companies Genta and the Cantel Medical Corporation, said of Obama’s proposal. “This is not the time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to other countries.”
Zika is spread by mosquitoes, but can also be sexually transmitted, and passed from pregnant mother to child. The virus is particularly dangerous for pregnant women because it can trigger microcephaly, which is a birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be smaller than expected and its brain to be underdeveloped. However, some are not aware they have the virus because the symptoms are typical to a cold.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued travel notices for Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. In February, the World Health Organization declared that Zika was a public health emergency of international concern. In the United States, none of the cases diagnosed in the 50 states were contracted locally, but from travel, according to the CDC.
The Miami Herald published an op-ed Monday by Burwell titled, “Congress must fully fund battle against Zika and Ebola.”
“The administration is taking immediate steps to respond,” Burwell wrote, adding,“But unfortunately, because of Congress’ inability to provide supplemental funding, the administration has been forced to fund our Zika activities with resources that were intended to fight Ebola.”
Burwell wrote that funding would expand mosquito control and assist testing and manufacturing of vaccines to combat Zika by “supporting state, territory and international preparedness and response efforts.”
“Now, we’re looking to Congress to properly fund the effort to fight Zika, and to do it without sacrificing the commitments we have already made to strengthen global health security around the world and here at home,” Burwell continued.
Neither the HHS nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded to inquiries from The Daily Signal.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest ridiculed Republicans for not passing the four-month-old appropriations request.
“While federal, state, and local leaders have been hard at work, congressional Republicans continue to drag their feet,” Earnest told reporters Monday. “This is a public health emergency, and Congress needs to stop playing politics with the health and safety of the American people. Congress must pass emergency funding today to ensure we’re doing everything in our power to protect pregnant women and children. The House Zika bill provided no new money and did nothing but essentially cannibalize existing funds and that’s clearly not the answer.”
Obama’s request includes some items unrelated to Zika, such as an increase in Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, and use unobligated funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department that are associated with the Ebola supplemental funding bill.
“The president’s request is overreaching and an excuse to send more money out the door,” Jason Yaworske, director of legislative initiatives for Heritage Action for America, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “We want the House to stick with its position that any funding should have offsets.”
Further, there is existing money that could be directed for fighting Zika that the administration isn’t touching.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., noted last month in an op-ed for The Daily Signal that the Obama administration has diverted money that Congress approved for infectious diseases to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.
Further, McCaughey criticized the administration for not tapping the $2 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund to help fight Zika.
The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, established the prevention fund “to provide for expanded and sustained national investment in prevention and public health programs to improve health and help restrain the rate of growth in private and public health care costs.”
But McCaughey said the government mostly used the fund for exercise videos and healthy eating programs.
Mosquitoes that can carry Zika live in at least 26 states, McCaughey said. She said that’s why it’s an even bigger frustration that the Food and Drug Administration won’t approve the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. The biotechnology firm Oxitec developed a means for curbing the population among Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
As Oxitec explains on its website:
Oxitec uses advanced genetics to insert a self-limiting gene into its mosquitoes. The gene is passed on to the insect’s offspring, so when male Oxitec engineered mosquitoes are released into the wild and mate with wild females, their offspring inherit the self-limiting trait. The resulting offspring will die before reaching adulthood, and the local mosquito population will decline.
McCaughey said this approach could eradicate about 90 percent of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the primary types of mosquitoes that carry Zika.
“The World Health Organization, hardly a right-wing organization, supports the use of Oxitec for mosquitoes, but the FDA seems more concerned with the environmental lobby than [with] women and their unborn children,” McCaughey said.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday it was teaming with Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz-Fiocruz, a national scientific research organization linked to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, to begin a multicountry study to evaluate the health risks that Zika poses to pregnant women and their unborn children.
The study is beginning in Puerto Rico and will expand to several locations in Brazil, Colombia, and other countries. The NIH plans to include about 10,000 pregnant women in the study.