The White House this week requested Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to enhance ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to the Zika virus, both domestically and internationally.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika, spread to people through mosquito bites, a global public health emergency, putting in the same category as Ebola. The Zika virus is currently most common in South America, and the infection has been linked to cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains.
According to a White House press release, the Pan American Health Organization reports 26 countries and territories in the Americas with local Zika transmission. “While we have not yet seen transmission of the Zika virus by mosquitoes within the continental United States, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories in warmer areas with Aedes aegpyti mosquito populations are already seeing active transmission. In addition, some Americans have returned to the continental U.S. from affected countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands with Zika infections,” the press release stated.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 50 laboratory-confirmed cases among U.S. travelers from December 2015 through February 5, 2016, according to the press release.
The Obama administration is requesting the funding to build ongoing preparedness efforts and support strategies to combat the virus, including “rapidly expanding mosquito control programs; accelerating vaccine research and diagnostic development; enabling the testing and procurement of vaccines and diagnostics; educating healthcare providers, pregnant women and their partners; improving epidemiology and expanding laboratory and diagnostic testing capacity; improving health services and supports for low-income pregnant women, and enhancing the ability of Zika-affected countries to better combat mosquitoes and control transmission.”
The $1.8 billion funding request would allocate $1.48 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with $828 million going to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and $250 million for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The emergency funding for CMS would fund a temporary one-year increase in Puerto Rico’s Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) for additional federal assistance to support health services for pregnant women at risk of infection or diagnosed with Zika virus and for children with microcephaly.
The funding request also includes $200 million for vaccine research and diagnostic development and procurement and $210 million for other HHS response activities, such as establishing a new Urgent and Emerging Threat Fund to address Zika virus and other outbreaks. “This funding would be available to support emerging needs related to Zika, including additional support to states for emerging public health response needs should mosquito populations known to be potential Zika carriers migrate to additional states,” the press release stated.
Internationally, the $1.8 billion funding request would allocate $335 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development and $41 million for the U.S. Department of State.
Last week, Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced the committee would hold a hearing on the Zika virus on Feb. 24, and HHS has been asked to participate in the Senate hearing.
As reported by Healthcare Informatics’ Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal, Sen. Alexander, well known in health IT circles, wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell last week expressing concern about the rapidly spreading Zika virus. Alexander and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) encouraged HHS to fully leverage the tools the department has at its disposal, such as adding the Zika virus to the tropical disease priority review voucher program using the new authority that Congress gave the administration to do so during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. In 2014, when the Ebola scare reached its peak in the U.S., Burwell tapped Karen DeSalvo, M.D., the National Coordinator for Health IT, to serve as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health as part of the Ebola response team.