The Risks of Using Ebola Funds to Fight the Zika Virus

Separate bills plans to redirect funds, but is it enough and what are the risks?

May 18, 2016, 1:44 PM

— -- The battle over Zika funding continues on Capitol Hill this week, as Senators are expected to move a new $1.1 billion bill forward and House Republicans work on a separate funding measure using “unobligated” Ebola funds.

The House proposal calls for $350 million in unobligated Ebola funds to help fund their new $622 million proposal to fight Zika, about one-third of the $1.9 billion that President Obama has requested.

“The legislation funds these efforts in a responsible way, using existing resources –- including excess funding left over from the Ebola outbreak -– to pay for it,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said in a statement.

The White House has threatened to veto the measure, saying it is inadequate and it could only fund efforts to fight Zika through September.

But questions remain about whether using Ebola funds to fight Zika virus is good budgeting or dangerous to public health.

The definition of “unobligated” funds

While some funds previously allocated in the fight against Ebola have yet to be spent, they are aren’t actually “unobligated.”

Outlined in the Ebola proposal for both Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was establishing a “global health security capacity in vulnerable countries” including a 5-year plan to help fight Ebola.

So, while the money hasn’t been spent, it has been promised to prop up health systems in West African countries.

“The cycle we are seeing has been repeated over and over again,” ABC News’ Chief Health and Medical Editor and former Acting CDC Director, Dr. Richard Besser explains. “By taking money away from Ebola activities and disease surveillance in Africa, we all become vulnerable to the next disease outbreak on that continent. Disease surveillance and response capacity isn't something that you can just buy. It involves training and supporting people so that when a crisis hits, they can identify the problem quickly and respond effectively. Without sustainable funding, these essential systems are not built and sustained and we all become vulnerable.”

The status of the threat from Ebola

Although the Public Health Emergency for Ebola was lifted at the end of March 2016, last month West Africa saw 13 new cases.

Andy Sechler, a physician and senior health advisor for Last Mile Health, who’s worked in Liberia for the past six years, said funding like what was promised to the Global Health Security Agenda means fulfilling health goals in Liberia that can have global impact.

“Our goal is to provide a health worker in every village so everyone, everywhere has a health worker,” he said.

At the time of the Ebola outbreak, he said there were between 50-100 doctors serving the entire country of Liberia. But placing trained health care providers in communities and remote villages can provide “a mechanism to detect future outbreaks.”

“If you have one in every village, in every far off area of Liberia, they are able to pick up outbreaks before they snowball,” he said. “Nigeria contacted thousands of people with their community health network to quickly quell the outbreak there, whereas the affected countries didn’t have any ability to do that at that time.”

If the ongoing efforts to stop Ebola were pulled due to a lack in funding, healthcare workers are fearful an Ebola resurgence could be possible.

“Because people can harbor the (Ebola) virus in their body for upward of year at a time, there are going to be flare ups for next 6-12 months. There needs to be continued vigilance to what has already been promised,” Sechler said. “There’s no guarantee that tomorrow these outbreaks won’t turn into a larger epidemic again. We aren’t out of this. It isn’t over. As the eyes go away from these countries and things aren’t followed through we will continue to be at risk.”

Previous funds from Ebola used for Zika

President Obama already signed a bill to redirect $510 million of unobligated Ebola funds toward the $589 that was identified for use for Zika. But the administration is adamant that no more can be spent.

“Using that money was essentially a last resort to try and do as much as we possibly can to protect the American people from the Zika virus,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week. “What we've done is basically taken as much money as we possibly can, without totally gutting the Ebola program, to direct it towards Zika.”

And while a chunk of the Ebola money was used -— it is expected to be repaid.

“To succeed against Ebola, we're going to need that money to be repaid, and to be repaid quickly,” he added. “I don’t want them to think that this is money that was just sitting around with nothing to do. The fact is, this is money that was available that we could use toward Zika without undermining the Ebola effort, but we need the Ebola effort to be fully funded, as well.”

ABC News' Rachel Katz and Dee Carden contributed to this report

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