Press Room

State Health Officials to Congress: Act on Zika Funding Now

(Sept. 14, 2016) Arlington, VA -- While Congress debates the future of federal funding for Zika preparedness and response, the Zika virus continues to spread. Rising case numbers and new information about long-term consequences of the infection highlight the urgency of mounting a major response.

For the sake of our nation’s health, our representatives in Washington must come together and approve a bill to fund needed Zika preparedness response efforts and keep our nation’s public health infrastructure strong and secure. This national and state public health emergency requires a coordinated and properly resourced effort at the federal, state, and local levels. The nation’s state and territorial health officials stand ready to be part of that effort.  

Zika virus is likely to continue to spread and is here to stay. While there is still much to learn about the virus and its health impacts, what we know already justifies an aggressive response. The virus has a potentially devastating impact on fetal development, and we are learning more about the risk of long-term health impacts for adults who become infected. We also know that federal agencies and state and territorial health departments are inadequately funded to respond to this crisis. There is an urgent need for additional resources to shore up mosquito control efforts, educate the public, increase public laboratory capacity, provide help to families with infants exposed to Zika, and follow up with pregnant women who may have been exposed to Zika at home or abroad.

Due to the urgency of this threat, state and federal health agencies have been forced to divert resources from other critical public health programs to pay for Zika response. We agree that this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach, described by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony S. Fauci in their August 31 Washington Post editorial, is the wrong way to fight the Zika epidemic. We need a focused, coordinated, and adequately funded response to Zika while continuing to support the other essential work health agencies do to protect the public. For this to happen, Congress must act now.

“We urge Congress to recognize that this is a serious, nonpartisan threat and to come together to pass emergency funding so that the public health system can effectively respond to Zika while simultaneously preparing for myriad other health threats like Ebola, natural disasters, and the upcoming influenza season,” said ASTHO President and Minnesota Commissioner of Health Edward P. Ehlinger, MD, MSPH.

In the absence of dedicated funding for Zika response, public health officials must fund Zika efforts by redirecting funds away from other important functions such as the all-hazards preparedness efforts of state and territorial health agencies that enable them to rapidly respond to public health emergencies of all kinds. This approach leaves us in a precarious position as Zika will not be the only public health emergency that state and territorial health agencies face. States are tasked with minimizing and mitigating the health effects of hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks, chemical spills, and all kinds of other manmade and natural emergencies. Preparation and response to Zika is a massive undertaking, and Congressional inaction is handcuffing states, limiting their ability to prepare and respond to emergency situations.

It has been months since public health officials first began calling for Zika funding, and Congressional delay lays bare the inadequacy of America’s piecemeal approach to funding public health emergency responses. In addition to properly funding a Zika response, we also need to create a permanent, FEMA-style Public Health Emergency Fund to facilitate an immediate response to public health emergencies. Public health crises arise independent of the Congressional calendar, and such a fund would allow for a rapid response rather than redirecting public health funding from other critical priorities.

Federal and state health agencies are obligated to protect health and wellness nationwide. We believe Congress is similarly obligated to support the critical health protection efforts in partnership with the states. As Drs. Frieden and Fauci stated, we should be working tirelessly to respond to and slow the spread of Zika infections and support those families whose newborns have been affected by this virus. We are ready to do that, but we need support from Congress now to make it happen.

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ASTHO is the national nonprofit organization representing the public health agencies of the United States, the U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia, as well as the more than 100,000 public health professionals these agencies employ. ASTHO members, the chief health officials of these jurisdictions, are dedicated to formulating and influencing sound public health policy and to ensuring excellence in state-based public health practice.