Zika Virus Efforts: To Fund or Not to Fund?

February 17, 2016
Caitlyn Fitzpatrick

Zika virus outbreaks have hit nearly 30 countries and regions since May 2015, and with multiple negative health outcomes associated with the illness, it raises the questions: how much attention, and maybe more importantly, how much money are we willing to devote to this?

Zika virus outbreaks have hit nearly 30 countries and regions since May 2015, and with multiple negative health outcomes associated with the illness, it raises the questions: how much attention, and maybe more importantly, how much money are we willing to devote to this?

It was only in early February 2016 that President Barack Obama announced a request to Congress for $1.8 billion for ongoing Zika efforts. The majority of those funds would go to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be split up among multiple organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The World Health Organization (WHO) said on February 17 that it would take $56 million just to fund Zika strategies until June.

But some officials have raised concerns over spending such a vast sum of money and, as the November election nears, Democrats and Republicans are divided yet again.

It wasn’t long ago that ‘Ebola’ was at the top of every newspaper and website. Although it may not be a global public health emergency, as Zika was just declared by the WHO, that doesn’t mean that efforts are over.

“There’s still money left that was appropriated for Ebola. So there’s not an immediate shortage of money for the administration to do what they think needs to be done,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri told reporters.

Blunt did acknowledge that Zika has to be dealt with. But this raises another question: should funds set aside for Ebola, or other efforts, be put toward Zika vaccine and treatment research since it’s a current call for emergency?

Democrats, on the other hand, are rallying behind President Obama’s urgency.

“Just as we did following the Ebola outbreak, the feds should appoint a ‘Zika Czar’ to coordinate between agencies and help lead prevention, response and treatment strategies here in America — and abroad,” Democratic Senator Charles E. Schumer said.

  • Related: Senator Calls for a Zika Czar

Even with the large funding request, President Obama said on CBS This Morning, “…But there shouldn’t be a panic on this. This is not something where people are going to die from it. It is something we have to take seriously.”

But there’s another piece of this puzzle that is also making headlines. At a hearing on the Zika virus on February 10, Republican Representatives Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Chris Smith of New Jersey and spoke out on the potential abortion ties to the illness.

“Killing a child in the womb because her mother has contracted a virus like Zika is no more or less a valid reason than any other reason to kill a child,” Duncan said to the Index-Journal.

As many people have become aware, the Zika virus is strongly associated with microcephaly — a condition where a child is born with smaller-than-normal head and brain size. While there has not been published concrete proof of this, a spike in infants born with the condition and a string of vision-threatening microcephaly cases in Brazil allows the data to speak for itself.

Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was also at the hearing and reaffirmed that CDC laboratory tests “strongly suggest a link between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly.”

Babies with the condition can suffer from seizures, developmental delay, hearing loss, and even potentially life-threatening conditions, Frieden explained.

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“There is much scientists admit they don’t know about the Zika virus itself,” Smith said. “Lack of knowledge and misinformation has stocked apprehension and fear among many.”

Abortion is illegal altogether in multiple South American countries. Others, like Brazil where the current outbreak all began, only allows abortion in order to save a woman’s life. So that route is not even a legal, safe option for many women who are at risk for giving birth to a child with the birth defect.

More new information on Zika is coming out every day. Recent CDC reports found that the virus is connected to miscarriages, infant deaths, and the rare neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré syndrome. Therefore, pregnant women are not the only ones who could potentially develop life-changing conditions as a result of the mosquito-borne illness.

Zika is not just on one track, it has opened the doors for political minds and the general population to really think… and check their pockets.

Also on MD Magazine >>> Zika Virus Linked to Three Deaths in Venezuela