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Obama administration declares public health emergency in Puerto Rico over Zika

August 18, 2016 — The Obama administration on Friday declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico in response to the Zika virus, the New York Times reports (Tavernise, New York Times, 8/12).

The declaration came one day after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on officials in Puerto Rico to facilitate access to contraception, improve mosquito control efforts and bolster its public education campaign on the virus.

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, 8/12).

Overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that between 20 and 25 percent of Puerto Rico residents will be infected by the virus before the end of 2016 (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/9).

To date, Puerto Rico has confirmed 10,690 Zika cases, including 1,035 pregnant women (New York Times, 8/12). A CDC assessment based on data obtained during screening of blood donors projected that thousands more pregnant women could be at risk for contracting the virus in the coming months (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/9).

Amid Congress' failure to pass Zika response legislation prior to leaving for a seven-week recess, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell last week announced that the Obama administration will redirect $81 million within HHS to prevent delays in the development of a Zika vaccine (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/12).

HHS declares public health emergency

According to Reuters, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party asked HHS to declare the public health emergency (Steenhuysen, Reuters, 8/12). He said, "Zika poses a hidden threat to future generations of Puerto Ricans, and I feel the responsibility to do everything in my power to fight the spread of it" (Coto, AP/Sacramento Bee, 8/12).

An HHS spokesperson said the department declared the emergency "because of the gravity of the situation" (New York Times, 8/12).

The emergency status will enable the federal government to provide additional support to the territory and gives Puerto Rico access to specific federal funds. Specifically, under the declaration, Puerto Rico can request funding to hire and train unemployed individuals to help with Zika response efforts, including education, outreach and mosquito control. In addition, local officials also will be authorized to reassign public health care employees to Zika-related work (Reuters, 8/12).

Burwell said, "This administration is committed to meeting the Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico with the necessary urgency" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 8/12).

Fla. announces additional Zika infections

In related news, Florida officials on Friday said local mosquitoes have infected three more residents with Zika, Reuters reports.

A total of 28 local Zika cases have now been reported in Florida (Reuters, 8/12).