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CDC Waits For Congress To Approve Emergency Funds To Combat Zika


The Zika virus poses a health emergency. On that point, the White House and Republicans in Congress agree. What they do not agree on is how much money the government should be spending to fight Zika. President Obama has asked for 1.9 billion in emergency funds. Republicans are talking about less. Here's White House spokesman, Josh Earnest.


JOSH EARNEST: Here we are three months later, and Republicans are making bureaucratic excuses about why they are not dealing with what our public health professionals say is a genuine emergency.

KELLY: To talk about the dispute and the disease, we've called Dr. Tom Frieden. He is director of the Center's for Disease Control and Prevention. Good morning, Dr. Frieden.

TOM FRIEDEN: Good morning.

KELLY: Start with why you and others are calling this a public health emergency for the U.S. What's coming?

FRIEDEN: We are literally learning more every day about Zika, but what we know today is very concerning. Put this in perspective. This is an unprecedented situation. Never before have we seen a mosquito-borne infection that could result in a serious birth defect. We have not seen this before. And we need to do everything we can to protect people, to reduce the number of birth defects and other serious health outcomes from Zika.

KELLY: OK, the funding issue - the Senate is set to vote today. There are three competing plans to battle Zika. And we're hearing from Republicans in the Senate and the House, pointing out the administration does have access right now, today, to $600 million that was set aside for Ebola and hasn't been spent. Here is how Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Cole put it on All Things Considered.


TOM COLE: These folks are just like generals in the military. They're - you know, the right answer is always more. I need as much right now - and I get that. I understand that. We don't live in that world.

KELLY: We don't live in that world, he says. Tom Frieden, does he have a point?

FRIEDEN: Congress did the right thing with Ebola. They funded us to protect Americans and keep us safer. And I'm hopeful in the end they will do the right thing with Zika as well. What we've done is to borrow money from other emergency uses so that we can get a start on protecting Americans more effectively against Zika.

We need to return that money so we can protect Americans against Ebola. We can't get confused and let our guard down against one threat to fight the next one. At the same time, we need to begin the work that will take a long time to protect Americans better against this newly recognized threat of Zika.

KELLY: OK. Well, however much money Congress ultimately decides to spend, tell us what it will be used to do. Is the priority at this point slowing the spread of the virus? Is it developing a vaccine, some of both?

FRIEDEN: It's all of the above. And that's going to take a big effort. We don't currently have the tools to effectively reduce this mosquito in places like Puerto Rico and other parts of the country that have it very widespread. We have three patterns we have to confront. The first are travelers, more than 40 million travelers to places where Zika is spreading. We've already had 10 sexually transmitted cases of Zika, including to several pregnant women.

The second is Puerto Rico and other places in the United States where the virus can spread very rapidly, and we have to intensively reduce the risk to pregnant women. And third, many parts of the U.S., particularly the southern U.S. that have this mosquito present and could have small clusters - it's possible that your neighbor comes back from a trip abroad, doesn't even know they were sick, mosquito bites them and bites you, and you could have a devastating birth defect. And in addition to the personal tragedy, we're told by our experts that every one of these birth defects can have a cost of more than $10 million per lifetime.

KELLY: So specifically, what do you want this money to do when you're talking about slowing the spread? What needs to be done that is not being done now?

FRIEDEN: First, we need to understand better multi-year studies of women who are affected by Zika to understand what the range of complications is and work to reduce that - second, better control the disease by using different types of mosquito control interventions together, to see how we can knock down this mosquito and protect people most effectively. And third...

KELLY: And that's everything from netting to the clothes you wear, all of that.

FRIEDEN: Absolutely, to spraying, to killing the larva of mosquitoes, to figuring out how those things work together. And third, newer tools, including better ways to diagnose it and a vaccine, those are multi-year efforts. The sooner we start them, the sooner we'll have a way to better protect Americans.

KELLY: Well, this is a situation you're calling unprecedented, an emergency situation. On the other hand, it does not sound like you're urging Americans to panic. So what is your advice to Americans as we head into the summer mosquito season?

FRIEDEN: The bottom line is, if you're pregnant, don't travel to an area where Zika is spreading. And for males who travel to places where Zika is spreading and your partner is pregnant, use a condom every time you have sex because you don't want to have the Zika infection spread sexually during pregnancy. That's the key lesson.

For people in the southern states, where there is a risk of small clusters of Zika in the future, we're really working intensively with health departments and environmental departments to track cases and reduce that risk. And for that, additional resources are very important.

KELLY: Dr. Frieden, thank you.

FRIEDEN: Thank you.

KELLY: Dr. Tom Frieden, he is director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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