WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials laid out details of their battle plan against the Zika virus for lawmakers on Tuesday, saying that more than $1.8 billion (£1.2 billion) in new emergency funds is needed to protect pregnant American women by the summer mosquito season.
Emerging from a closed-door meeting with Senate leaders, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell pushed back against Republican assertions that the Obama administration had no immediate need for money and could divert existing funds from a longstanding campaign against Ebola in Africa.
"The money is important and is urgent," Burwell told reporters, saying the government needs to ramp up preparedness and mosquito control in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and other Southern states while pursuing new research and an accelerated vaccine programme.
Zika has spread quickly in South and Central America and the Caribbean, raising fears of the possibility of a birth defect known as microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that can result in developmental problems. Most infected people have no symptoms or mild ones including fever and skin rashes.
Brazil is investigating more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly and has identified evidence of Zika infection in 17 of these cases. But much remains unknown about the virus, including whether it actually causes microcephaly. Zika can be spread by mosquitoes, sexual transmission and blood transfusions. Its discovery in the saliva and urine of infected people has added to concerns.
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international health emergency on Feb. 1, citing a "strongly suspected" relationship between Zika infection in pregnancy and microcephaly.
Zika is spreading inside Puerto Rico, and more than 50 people in the United States have been infected, mainly while travelling overseas, officials said. Part of the emergency funds would go towards developing new diagnostic tests for the virus.
But while Democrats joined with the administration to call for emergency funding, Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said the administration can find Zika funding in an unspent sum of $1.49 billion for Ebola, and additional money allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health last year.
"So there’s no immediate shortage of money for the administration to do what they think needs to be done," Blunt, a member of the Senate leadership, said before the meeting.
Burwell said the unspent funds are earmarked for a global health security initiative to establish disease surveillance in 17 countries over five years.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)
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