As Zika fears grow, CDC says they've run out of money to fight virus

As Zika fears grow, CDC says they've run out of money to fight virus
(Image: Hawaii News Now/File)
(Image: Hawaii News Now/File)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the Zika threat looms for Hawaii, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that the agency has "essentially run out of money" to fight the virus.

The announcement came after Congress failed to fund efforts aimed at reducing Zika outbreaks.

Experts say the spread of Zika is a grave health concern, especially in the islands.

"We are at risk because we have mosquitoes year-round," said Dr. Virginia Pressler, director of the state Department of Health. "We happen to have the particular mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus. Its the same one that carries dengue and chikungunya."

Seven months ago, President barack Obama asked for nearly $2 billion to battle Zika, but the Republican-led Congress has been slow to act.

The Senate did manage to pass a $1.1 billion Zika funding measure, but it has yet to be taken up by the House.

Without the money, health care experts across the country warn the virus could become an epidemic in the U.S.

Officials say there are more than 18,000 cases of Zika reported in the United States and its territories.

So far, there have been 56 local transmissions of the virus in Florida, where officials have confirmed at least 84 pregnant women have been infected. Zika can lead to microcephaly, a serious brain defect in infants that has no cure.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, says the severity of the threat means Congress must act to ensure the CDC gets the funding they need.

"The good news is that there's an emerging bipartisan group of senators that understand that this is an urgent public health priority," Schatz said. "Mosquitoes don't care whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. This is just a problem we have to solve."

Health officials say the ultimate hope for combating the disease is to have a vaccine against Zika, which is one of the CDC's top priorities.

"A vaccine is one of the primary things that they're after and if they don't have funding to continue that effort, than those efforts will stall," Pressler said.

Researchers and students at the John A. Burns School of Medicine have been working to create a Zika vaccine for the past two and a half months.

"If we vaccinate, then even if the mosquito has Zika -- humans will not get the infection," said Dr. Vivek R. Nerurkar, chairman of the Department of Tropical Medicine. "I think that will be the best way to go forward."

Until that happens, researchers say the best defense is mosquito control and trying to prevent people from getting bitten in the first place, which is why some communities in other countries have begun releasing genetically modified mosquitoes that can't breed.

"There have been a lot of papers published in scientific journals showing that these released mosquitoes are bringing down the total mosquitoes in the community," said Nerurkar, who adds there has been no evidence of risks to humans if someone is bitten by a genetically modified mosquito.

Genetically-modified mosquitoes have not been released in the United States, yet. However, the FDA has approved their use in the Florida Keys. The community will first get to vote whether they want that to happen this November.

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