Senate impasse postpones Zika funding talks till fall

US Capitol
US Capitol

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In the last chance for Congress to act on a Zika funding bill before it breaks for a 7-week recess, members of the Senate today failed to advance a House version of a compromise bill, putting federal support for response activities on hold until fall.

Meanwhile, the number of Zika-related birth defects in the United States rose again last week, with another steep jump in cases in Puerto Rico and in US travelers.

Also, in a flurry of scientific developments, researchers reported new findings about antibody interactions between Zika and dengue, described co-infections with chikungunya, and warned of thrombocytopenia complications in some patients.

Fallout of funding inaction called 'irreversible'

In the bitter political fight over the bill, Democratic lawmakers have objected to recent provisions added to the version of the bill passed recently in the House, which barred federal grant money from providing services such as birth control to women in Puerto Rico.

Democrats have also objected to attached measures that temporarily ease permits for pesticide spraying near water sources, cut spending for other health measures, and allow the Confederate flag to be flown at veterans' cemeteries.

Meanwhile, Republicans have pressed federal officials to tap unused Ebola response money and have asked for spending offsets to cover the rest of the proposed Zika bill.

Obama had also threatened to veto the most recent version of the $1.1 billion bill, which fell well short of the $1.9 billion that he requested back in February.

After today's Senate vote, Richard Hamburg, interim president and chief executive officer of Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based public health advocacy group, said in a statement, "By the time Congress returns in a couple of months, the damage to our nation from Zika will likely be irreversible. This failure to act severely hampers the full response that is greatly needed."

He said without additional funding, state and community health departments are on their own and will need to shift money earmarked for other efforts to cover mosquito testing, disease surveillance, and other actions.

At the scientific level, the funding gap will also slow work on vaccines, treatment, and new tests, Hamburg said. "While this will undoubtedly have short-term consequences, this failure has the potential to cause drastic future problems as researchers find government an unreliable partner in supporting innovation."

Congressional Republicans, however, pinned the Zika funding stall today on Democrats.

After the vote, John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement, "For the second time, Senate Democrats have chosen partisan politics over funding veterans' health care and combatting the deadly Zika virus. This shameful action represents nothing more than an election year stunt, and confirms everything the American people hate about Washington."

Three more Zika-related birth defects

In its latest case totals, meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today reported 3 more Zika-related birth defects in US travelers, 2 of them in newborns and 1 involving a pregnancy loss. The total in the US states is now at 15, while the number in US territories remained the same, at 1, presumably an earlier pregnancy loss reported from Puerto Rico.

The number of pregnant women infected with Zika virus also grew last week, with 26 more cases linked to travel reported from US states, putting the total at 346. The number of pregnant women infected in US territories rose by 24, to 303, most of them in Puerto Rico.

In the US territories, the number of Zika infections continues a steady rise, mainly because of activity in Puerto Rico. Last week the region reported 379 more cases, boosting the number to 2,905. The number of travel-linked cases in US states rose by 173, to 1,305.

Cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a neurologic complication of Zika and other infections, are at 17, including 5 from US states and 12 from affected territories. The CDC reported no new GBS cases.

Research news

  • In the complex task of defining antibody relationships between Zika and dengue viruses, an international team of researchers found that some are specific to one or the other, suggesting that the Zika-specific ones could be useful for drug or vaccine development. They reported their findings today in Science. Scientists examined 119 monoclonal antibodies from the blood of four people who had been infected with Zika virus, including two who had earlier dengue infections. The team grouped the antibodies by the viral region they target, and tested their immune response in the lab. Two antibody groups were cross-reactive, while 90% of the third were specific to Zika or dengue and very effective at neutralizing their targets. Mice given the Zika-specific antibodies before or after infection with Zika virus were fully protected.

  • Sophisticated genetic testing that can detect nearly any known virus in blood identified 2 chikungunya coinfections in a cohort of 15 Brazilian patients that tested positive for Zika, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Brazil reported yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology. The tests were negative for dengue, malaria, and other common tropical mosquito-borne pathogens. The patients from Brazil's hard-hit Bahia state were tested from April 2015 to January 2016. The team said Zika symptoms could mask other similar illnesses and that a more comprehensive test would be useful.

  • Immune-mediated severe thrombocytopenia may be a complication of Zika virus infection, according to a report today describing two patients from Puerto Rico. Clinicians from the CDC and Puerto Rico published their findings in Clinical Infectious Diseases. The patients were both men, ages 72 and 38, with underlying medical conditions. Both had bloody lesions in their mouths. Neither had evidence of plasma leakage, which typically precedes bleeding in dengue illness. The older man died following alveolar and multiple intracranial hemorrhages. The investigators noted that, as with other earlier reported cases of Zika-associated thrombocytopenia, medical teams originally thought the patients had dengue illness.

Other developments

  • The CDC today added the Dutch Caribbean island St. Eustatius to its level 2 travel advisory for Zika virus. So far 22 Caribbean locations are on the CDC's travel list, among 50 overall.

  • Peru has declared a Zika health emergency for the northern half of the country, RTE News, based in Ireland, reported today, citing an announcement in Peru's official gazette. Of 102 infections that have been reported so far in the region, 34 are in pregnant women.

See also:

Jul 14 TFAH statement

Jul 14 John McCain statement

Jul 14 CDC update on Zika-related pregnancy outcomes

Jul 14 CDC update on Zika infections in pregnant women

Jul 14 CDC update on Zika cases in the US and territories

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