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President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $1.8 billion to help get ready to fight the Zika virus, which is spreading across the Americas fast and which doctors fear may cause severe birth defects.
The money would go for mosquito control, training programs and laboratory capacity to test for the virus, the White House said in a statement.
“The Pan American Health Organization reports 26 countries and territories in the Americas with local Zika transmission,” the White House said.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 50 laboratory-confirmed cases among U.S. travelers from December 2015 - February 5, 2016. As spring and summer approach, bringing with them larger and more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the Southern United States.”
The CDC is sending teams to Brazil to help investigate whether and how Zika might cause microcephaly, a serious birth defect marked by incomplete brain development and other problems. The National Institutes of Health is encouraging work on a vaccine to prevent Zika and is racing to develop better tests to diagnose Zika.
Right now there is no quick test to detect Zika infection. Quick tests can get Zika mixed up with other common mosquito-borne infections, such as dengue and chikungunya.
Only a few labs can do the more complex things needed to tell is someone is or has been infected with Zika, and not having these tests slows down efforts to understand the spread of the virus and to try and determine whether it is indeed causing birth defects and a serious neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“There is much that we do not yet know about Zika and its relationship to the poor health outcomes that are being reported in Zika-affected areas,” the White House said.
“Congressional action on the Administration’s request will accelerate our ability to prevent, detect and respond to the Zika virus and bolster our ability to reduce the potential for future infectious disease outbreaks."
Related: Answers to Your Questions About Zika
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on a subcommittee involved in funding health, said such requests should not have to be made on an emergency basis.
“Congress should fund the public health emergency fund, so that our response to diseases like Ebola and Zika is not slowed by Congressional lethargy," DeLauro said in a statement.
"Currently, the emergency fund has no resources and for this reason, I have introduced the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Act to fund it with $5 billion."
Under Obama's request, the Department of Health and Human Services would get $1.48 billion, more than half of that for the CDC.
The request would also give $250 million to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program to help pregnant women. Zika’s already started spreading in Puerto Rico,a U.S. territory that gets some U.S. benefits but not on the scale of states.
When the Ebola epidemic was reaching its peak at the end of 2014, Obama asked for more than $6 billion in funds to fight Ebola and got $5.4 billion from Congress. More than 50 organizations testified that years of budget cuts have damaged U.S. preparedness for any disease outbreak.