Zika funding diverted from other health programs

Federal lawmakers’ failure to pass an emergency funding bill to battle potential Zika outbreaks this summer may compromise the emergency preparedness of state and local health departments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been forced to redirect emergency public health funding from as many as 62 health districts, including in Ohio, while Congress continues to debate the Obama administration’s request to approve $1.9 billion in new supplemental funding to help battle Zika.

According to the CDC, 591 cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus have been diagnosed in the U.S. All have been travel-related and started with infected patients returning to the U.S. from Zika-plagued countries, including Latin America, Asia and Africa.

But health officials say domestically transmitted Zika disease — which can cause serious birth defects, including microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects — are likely to emerge in the U.S. over the summer months as the mosquito season hits full gear.

As a result, the federal government has redirected more than $85 million for state, local and territorial health officials to use to identify and investigate possible Zika outbreaks in an effort to protect Americans from the disease’s most adverse effects.

But those funds have been diverted from existing stockpiles of emergency preparedness funding, which is used for more than just combating Zika, said Larry Cleek, Montgomery County’s emergency preparedness coordinator.

“Basically, we took an 8.5 percent cut from our public health emergency preparedness grant…to target toward Zika response,” Cleek said. “So, for training, for development of plans, for exercises; for all those sorts of things, we took and 8.5 percent cut — and that’s across each county.”

Still, the budget cuts likely won’t have a major impact on overall readiness, Cleek said: “There are going to be some things we are limited on, but even with the 8.5 percent cut, we’re still going to be able to do our jobs. It’s not going to affect us drastically.”

When it comes to addressing Zika on a national level, diverting already existing emergency funds was nothing more than a stop-gap measure, according to said Dr. Stephen Redd of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

“These funds will allow states and territories to continue implementation of their Zika preparedness plans, but are not enough to support a comprehensive Zika response and can only temporarily address what is needed,” Redd said. “Without the full amount of requested emergency supplemental funding, many activities that need to start now are being delayed or may have to be stopped within months.”

Redd was referring primarily to spraying, trapping and other mosquito-control measures used to curb the risk of Zika virus transmission.

Zika is spread to people primarily through the bite of infected Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The Aedes aegypti are more likely to spread Zika, but aren’t found in southwestern Ohio. And the the threat of exposure from infected Aedes albopictus mosquitoes is low in the state, health officials said.

“The good news is we aren’t dealing with anything like they’re dealing with in the South,” Cleek said, referring to the states where the mosquitoes are more prevalent and most likely to spark Zika outbreaks.