House Republicans Talk|Delay on Zika Funds

     (CN) – After federal health officials confirmed a link between the Zika virus and birth defects Wednesday, congressional Republicans said that additional funding to combat the virus may have to wait until September.
     The White House has already diverted nearly $600 million in unspent Ebola funds toward the effort to stem Zika, after requesting about $1.9 billion to combat the virus from Congress.
     And the situation became more urgent after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that confirmed Zika is linked to microcephaly, verifying what many researchers and health officials have speculated for months.
     Microcephaly is a congenital disorder that leads to reduced head size, brain damage and potential death. Infants in Latin America and the Caribbean — areas hit hard by Zika — had been diagnosed with the disease over the past few months.
     Brazil was the first nation to report increased cases of microcephaly this past September, months after experiencing a large Zika outbreak.
     In a report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, CDC researchers presented a thorough review of existing scientific evidence that connects Zika to microcephaly.
     “We’ve now confirmed what mounting evidence has suggested, affirming our early guidance to pregnant women and their partners to take steps to avoid Zika infection and to health care professionals who are talking to patients every day,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said.
     Frieden had previously referred to Zika as unprecedented, as it is the first mosquito-borne virus that has been associated with birth defects.
     Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, lead author and director of the CDC’s division of public health information, said that as opposed to a “smoking gun” or definitive pieces of evidence, the scientists found a pattern of defects in infants who were exposed to the virus in utero. She also said that the virus had been found in the brain tissue of deceased infants with microcephaly.
     Despite the advances, Rasmussen cautioned that additional information is still needed.
     “Not all babies born to mothers who are infected with Zika virus during pregnancy will have problems,” Rasmussen said. “We need to learn to answer this question — if a woman is infected during pregnancy, how often will her fetus have birth defects or other problems?”
     The CDC will launch additional studies to determine whether other birth defects are also connected to Zika.
     But the agency has not adjusted its recommendations for pregnant women and women who may become pregnant, which currently advises pregnant women to avoid areas where active transmission of Zika from mosquitoes to people is occurring. Men who travel to an area with active Zika transmissions and have a pregnant partner are also advised to abstain from sex or use contraception properly.
     The Obama administration had urged the Republican-controlled Congress to release nearly $1.9 billion in emergency funds to combat Zika, as health officials have said that the remaining funds for Ebola were still needed to ensure that active transmission of that virus does not become an issue again.
     But Republicans insist that the White House should use the remaining funds earmarked for fighting Ebola outbreaks.
     “We’re certainly fine probably through the end of the fiscal year, so it’s not like we have to do something today,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma and the chairman of the House panel responsible for the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, said. “But we do need to do something in the foreseeable future, and I would think before the end of the fiscal year.”
     The fiscal year ends Oct. 1.
     After House Democrats forced a vote on Zika funding, House Appropriations Committee chair Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, said Wednesday that he supports an immediate action for supplemental funding but is waiting for additional details from the White House.
     “We can’t do it without the numbers,” Rogers said.
     Lawmakers are debating whether to attach additional money for fighting Zika to an appropriations bill, or to a “continuing resolution” which would keep the government open at existing spending levels and prevent a potential governmental shutdown ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline.
     House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said that Zika funding will be handled through the standard appropriations process.
     “We will address the situation through the regular appropriations process as the need arises, and our appropriators are looking at how to do just that,” Ryan said at a press conference Wednesday.

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