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Fla. lawmakers ask HHS to shift funds to Zika vaccine development

August 18, 2016 — A group of liberal lawmakers representing Florida called on Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to shift money from other federal initiatives to fund the development of a Zika vaccine, The Hill reports (Sullivan, The Hill, 8/10).

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.

As of Aug. 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report there have been 1,825 cases of Zika in the United States, of which 1,818 are travel-related. Florida officials have reported 15 cases of Zika virus that were likely acquired locally.

Overall, CDC reports that as of Aug. 4, 479 pregnant women in the United States were infected with Zika. Of those, at least 15 have delivered infants with Zika-related fetal anomalies, while six pregnancies ended in miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. Separately, Texas officials on Wednesday announced that an infant died after being born with Zika-related birth defects, marking the state's first death tied to the virus and the second in the continental United States.

Response efforts

The White House in February called for $1.9 billion to combat the virus. However, Congress failed to send a funding measure to the president before leaving last month for a seven-week recess. According to the Obama administration, as of last week, $201 million of the $374 million reallocated in April for Zika has been spent (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/10).

The administration said the National Institutes of Health, which is developing a vaccine, will likely run out of funding by the end of the month. As a result, Phase II testing for the vaccine could be delayed.

Earlier this month, Burwell told congressional lawmakers that she is "evaluating all options in order to avoid delaying the development of a Zika vaccine." She also called on Congress to allocate new funds for Zika response efforts.

Lawmakers request funding reallocation

In the letter sent Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and seven other liberal lawmakers representing Florida asked the administration to bolster vaccine funding by reallocating federal money from other areas.

The lawmakers wrote, "We recognize that any options that involve moving resources from other parts of your budget require raiding other vital work that is being done at your Department." They added that "for this reason, we would only recommend this type of extraordinary step if there were no other choice. Unfortunately, the [conservative-controlled] Congress has left you no other options" (The Hill, 8/10).