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Senate blocks Zika bill targeting Planned Parenthood; Fla. officials report new Zika cases

September 7, 2016 —The Senate on Tuesday did not advance a bill (HR 2577) that includes Zika response funding after liberal lawmakers opposed provisions in the bill that would deny Planned Parenthood funds meant to increase access to contraceptives, the New York Times reports (Huetteman/Tavernise, New York Times, 9/6).

According to The Hill, Tuesday's vote marks the third time the bill has failed in the Senate (Ferris, The Hill, 9/6).

Background

The Zika virus is not easily diagnosed, and it does not have a cure or vaccine. It is linked to microcephaly, an anomaly in which a fetus develops an abnormally small head and brain. The condition is fatal for some infants, while others experience permanent disabilities. The virus is most commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected mosquito, but it can also be spread through sexual activity (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/18).

There were more than 16,800 cases in the country as of late August, with Puerto Rico reporting the most cases. Health officials are tracking more than 1,500 pregnant women who have contracted the virus (Huetteman/Tavernise, New York Times, 9/6).

In February, the White House called for $1.9 billion to combat the virus. Congress failed to send a funding measure to the president before leaving in July for a seven-week recess (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/18).

The House and Senate each approved a funding proposal for a Zika response earlier this year. The Senate's measure (SA 3900) would provide $1.1 billion in funding, while the House's measure (HR 5243) would allocate $622 million. Both Zika response proposals include antiabortion-rights language. In July, the Senate voted to go to conference with the House to negotiate and merge the proposals.

The House later voted 239-171 to advance a separate bill, HR 2577, which includes a $1.1 billion Zika response that differs from the Senate's original proposal.

HR 2577 would redirect $750 million from other federal programs, including $107 million from Ebola-related efforts and $543 million from a program to help U.S. territories set up insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148). Overall, the proposal allocates about $400 million in new spending for Zika response efforts, short of the $1.9 billion requested by the White House. In addition, the proposal would prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving funds under a $95 million grant program. President Obama has said previously that he would veto HR 2577 (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/7).

Next steps

During Tuesday's session, lawmakers voted 52-46 on a motion to end debate on the bill. The motion required 60 votes in favor for lawmakers to end debate and move the measure forward.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said they will advance Zika funding legislation by the end of the month. Conservative leaders in the Senate on Tuesday said Zika funding will likely be addressed through a stop-gap spending bill.

According to The Hill, some conservative lawmakers have indicated that they will have to agree to revise the language that bans funding from Planned Parenthood. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said, "For this to get done, that language just may have to go away" (The Hill, 9/6).

Health officials stress need for funding

Some health experts have noted that funding may be needed before Congress acts on the stop-gap spending measure.

Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last week said the agency had used nearly all of the $222 million it has received for Zika. He said that if additional funding is not provided, some programs, such as a mosquito control program in Puerto Rico, would end.

Separately, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell stressed the urgent need for funding. She said that the administration has focused on shifting funding instead of conducting research to learn more about the Zika virus.

Burwell said, "This is an emergency," noting that Congress in the past has authorized funding for other health emergencies, such as Ebola and H1N1. Regarding Zika, Burwell said, "We did not know. It was not planned for. It is a national issue. For other kinds of emergencies we do it" (Huetteman/Tavernise, New York Times, 9/6).

WHO clarifies Zika sex, pregnancy guidance

In related news, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday issued updated recommendations for preventing sexual transmission of Zika, the Times reports.

In the document, WHO said women and their partners in areas where Zika is circulating should be offered contraception and counseling about whether to become pregnant. According to the Times, the organization has strongly encouraged countries to support access to contraception (McNeil, New York Times, 9/6).

In June, WHO issued guidelines recommending that people living in countries with local Zika transmission be made aware of all their options regarding pregnancy, given the virus' link to birth defects in fetuses. Amid news reports at the time that WHO explicitly recommended that women delay pregnancy, WHO official William Perea in June clarified that the organization "doesn't want to make any" of the options for women in areas with local Zika transmission appear "any more important than the other." He added, "Delaying pregnancy is among [the options] ... but it's not the only one" (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/10).

Nyka Alexander, a WHO spokesperson, said, "Last time, our guidance was quite confusing," adding, "We want it to be unmistakable that we are not counseling anybody toward delay."

In addition, the new guidelines suggest that individuals practice safe sex or abstinence for six months after returning from an area where Zika is circulating. Previously, officials had advised individuals practice safe sex or remain abstinent for eight weeks. The update follows new evidence about how long Zika remains in semen. According to Alexander, sexual transmission of Zika has occurred as long as two months after a man contracts the virus (McNeil, New York Times, 9/6).

Fla. reports new Zika cases

In other related news, the Florida Department of Health on Tuesday confirmed seven additional cases of locally acquired Zika virus in South Florida, the USA Today reports (Gomez, USA Today, 9/6).

In total, Florida has reported 56 cases of locally acquired Zika.

Six of the new cases were reported in a section of Miami Beach where Zika is circulating (Huetteman/Tavernise, New York Times, 9/6). Individuals have contracted Zika in that area, as well as well as in the Wynwood neighborhood, which is just north of downtown Miami (USA Today, 9/6).

One of the seven new cases was identified elsewhere in Miami-Dade County (Huetteman/Tavernise, New York Times, 9/6). Officials are in the process of determining whether that case is an isolated instance or part of an active outbreak.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County has announced it will conduct aerial mosquito spraying over the affected section of Miami Beach (USA Today, 9/6).