By Dennis Thompson
WEDNESDAY, April 6, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- The Obama administration is shifting $589 million in funding to prepare for likely outbreaks of Zika virus in the United States during the upcoming mosquito season, senior officials announced Wednesday.
The money includes $510 million originally intended for fighting the Ebola virus, which officials said remains a global health threat.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said the transferred money will support state-level mosquito-control efforts and Zika surveillance. It will also boost laboratory testing for Zika; fund efforts to develop diagnostic tests and potential vaccines; and pay for response efforts in Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory where the Zika virus currently is most active.
Health officials believe it's only a matter of time before Zika -- which is linked to serious birth defects -- becomes active in the mainland United States, passing from person to person via mosquito bites, Burwell said.
"We believe that there will likely be local transmission in the continental U.S. in the spring and summer months," Burwell said.
The administration took this step after Congress failed to act on a $1.9 billion emergency funding request from President Barack Obama to combat Zika, said Shaun Donovan, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
The nation's public health response to Zika needs to begin before the Aedes aegypti, the mosquito most likely to transmit the virus, begins its breeding season this spring, Donovan said.
As of April 1, there are 672 confirmed cases of Zika in U.S. states and territories, Burwell said. However, none of the cases in the continental United States have occurred due to local transmission of the virus via mosquito bite. Most of these infections were acquired while traveling outside the country.
Texas, Florida and Hawaii are the states most at risk for local transmission of Zika, Burwell said. However, the Aedes aegypti ranges as far north as San Francisco, Kansas City and New York City, and uncontrolled outbreaks down South could lead to a Zika epidemic, officials fear.
"We should not play with fire here," Donovan said. "We should not risk the outbreak spreading and getting out of control before Congress acts."
But these transferred funds are not enough to fully pay for Zika response in the United States this year. "Without the full amount of requested emergency supplemental funding, many activities that need to start right now will have to be delayed, or curtailed or stopped within months," Donovan said.
For example, Burwell said, mosquito control efforts might falter, or vaccine and diagnostic test development could stall for lack of funding if the well runs dry.
Officials also won't have the money to help fund efforts in other countries to contain Zika, making the virus's spread to the United States even more likely, said Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary for management and resources at the U.S. Department of State.
"Without the full emergency supplemental funding, we will not be able to effectively enhance the ability of Zika-affected countries to combat mosquitoes, control transmission, and support affected populations," Higginbottom said.
In addition, the money shift could undermine U.S. efforts to contain Ebola, Burwell said.
Ebola killed 11,323 people during a prolonged outbreak in West Africa that began in March 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus continues to simmer there, with 12 cases of Ebola currently occurring in Liberia and Guinea, officials said.
"We face two real global health challenges, Ebola and Zika, and we don't have the option to set one aside to pursue the other," Burwell said.
But the virus could pose a serious risk to unborn children. Mounting evidence has shown that some pregnant women infected with Zika have given birth to children with microcephaly, a birth defect involving abnormally small growth of the head and brain, Burwell said.
Raising and caring for just one child with microcephaly can cost as much as $10 million, Burwell said, and so far 64 pregnant women have been confirmed with Zika infection in U.S. states and territories.