This link prompted the World Health Organization to declare a “public health emergency of international concern” earlier this year and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue travel warnings to pregnant women and those seeking to become pregnant to avoid Zika-affected areas. The first cases of locally-transmitted Zika (from mosquito to human) in the U.S. were reported in Puerto Rico in December 2015. In July 2016, local transmission was reported in Miami, Florida.
Zika is the latest in a growing list of infectious disease outbreaks, joining HIV, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola, which have taken the world largely by surprise, raising challenging questions about how the U.S. and other countries can best anticipate and respond to these threats. With Zika, such questions have become political, particularly concerning funding as well as access to family planning and reproductive health services for women.
Funding for emerging disease threats. The U.S. currently has limited funding mechanisms available to respond to emerging disease threats and new Congressional appropriations are often needed or funding must be reallocated from other areas. Because of this, in February of this year, President Obama sent an emergency funding request to Congress for almost $1.9 billion to address Zika internationally and domestically (as it did with the Ebola outbreak in 2014). Congress has considered several bills to fund Zika, each of which provides significantly less funding than the President requested and includes other program and policy differences. To date, Congress has yet to approve any Zika funding, and the Administration is using funds from other areas, including Ebola, to address Zika.
Access to family planning and reproductive health services. Because the main public health concern related to Zika is the link between infection during pregnancy and birth defects, women’s access to family planning and reproductive health services is critically important and has become a contested issue in the Zika response. The Conference Agreement passed by the House placed a restriction on some of the funding for HHS, which some have argued would prevent funds from going to organizations that provide family planning and reproductive health services, and as a result, it has been opposed by Democrats in Congress.
Where the Candidates Stand
Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton supports emergency funding for Zika, and in March, called upon Congress to appropriate $1.8 billion in emergency funding. She supports the bipartisan Senate bill which passed in May and includes $1.1 billion in funding. She has stated that Congress should pass a bill “free of politics”. More broadly, Clinton has called for investment in public health preparedness including the creation of a Public Health Rapid Response Fund to address emerging disease threats like Zika.
Donald Trump. Donald Trump does not have a position on funding for Zika or on public health preparedness.