WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Wednesday it will redirect $589 million in funds to prepare for the Zika virus before the mosquito that carries it begins to emerge in the continental United States, but urged Congress to act quickly on its request for more money.
White House budget director Shaun Donovan said the use of money previously provided for fighting another health crisis, the Ebola virus, was only a temporary fix for Zika funding.
Donovan said some measures to fight Zika would have to be delayed, curtailed or stopped unless the U.S. Congress approves more than $1.8 billion in emergency funds requested by the Obama administration in February.
The Zika virus, linked to a growing number of cases of the birth defect microcephaly in Brazil, is spreading rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean and heading north as the weather gets warmer.
“We should not play with fire here,” Donovan told reporters on a conference call.
Without full Zika funding, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said mosquito control and surveillance may have to be delayed or stopped, vaccine development could be jeopardized and development of faster diagnostic tests could be impaired.
Most of the $589 million will come from $2.7 billion in funds set aside for public health projects aimed at the Ebola virus. West Africa was stricken by a two-year Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,300 people starting in December 2013 and led to a small number of cases in the United States.
The Republican-controlled Congress has said the White House should draw the money needed to fight Zika from the Ebola funds.
Chairman Hal Rogers and other top Republicans on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee said in a statement they would “monitor the changing needs resulting from this unpredictable crisis” to ensure that needed funds are available.
“Republicans are going to look back on this time that they’ve had to act on the Zika virus and deeply regret it,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Burwell said a recent flare-up of Ebola in West Africa shows the United States cannot shortchange its work in the region.
“We face two global health challenges, Ebola and Zika, and we don’t have an option to set one aside in the name of the other,” Burwell told reporters.
Burwell said there were 672 confirmed cases of Zika infections in the United States, including 64 pregnant women. She said there was one confirmed case of Zika-related microcephaly in Hawaii.
The World Health Organization has said there is a strong scientific consensus that Zika can cause microcephaly as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, though proof may take months or years.
Microcephaly is a condition defined by unusually small heads in babies that can result in developmental problems. Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare neurological disorder that can result in paralysis.
Brazil said it has confirmed more than 940 cases of microcephaly, and considers most to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. Brazil is investigating nearly 4,300 additional suspected cases of microcephaly.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham