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Crisis comes after Congress adjourned without funding emergency Zika expenditures

By Miriam Raftery

August 12, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – Today, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell declared a public health emergency for Puerto Rico, where the rapid spread of Zika virus poses a significant threat to public health particularly for children born to women who contract Zika virus while pregnant, since it causes serious birth defects including brain damage.  Over 10,000 cases of Zika virus have been confirmed in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

Despite growing concerns by public health officials over the spread of Zika into the U.S. including Puerto Rico, Congress adjourned in late June without passing President Obama’s funding request for emergency Zika expenditures.  Republicans rejected the measure, adding provisions to omit funds for birth control through Planned Parenthood (though health officials advise women to avoid pregnancy in Zika-infested areas) and to weaken environmental regulations on pesticides, leading Democrats to reject the GOP’s amended version of the bill.

The emergency declaration for Puerto Rico was made in response to a request by Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla.

"This Administration is committed to meeting the Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico with the necessary urgency,” Secretary Burwell said. “We are working closely with Puerto Rican officials to pursue solutions to fight the virus in Puerto Rico with a focus on protecting pregnant women and continuing our efforts with jurisdictions throughout the United States to address this public health threat.”

Padilla expressed his gratitude for the support given by the Administration of President Barack Obama, and added that “the threat of Zika to future generations of Puerto Ricans is evident, and I feel a responsibility to do everything that is within my reach to make sure we fight the spread of the virus. This is why we are actively looking for alternatives to prevent the number of infections from increasing.”

 Through the public health emergency declaration, the government of Puerto Rico can:

  • Apply for funding to hire and train unemployed workers to assist in vector control and outreach and education efforts through the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Dislocated Worker Grant program; and
  • Request the temporary reassignment of local public health department or agency personnel who are funded through Public Health Service Act programs in Puerto Rico to assist in the Zika response.

Zika virus is known to cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.  It has also been associated with other adverse pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage, stillbirth, and serious neurological problems.

According to the Puerto Rico Department of Health, as of August 12 there have been 10,690 laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika in Puerto Rico, including 1,035 pregnant women. The actual number of people infected with Zika likely is higher because most people with Zika infections have no symptoms and might not seek testing.

Men and women living in Puerto Rico and other areas where Zika is spreading should take precautions to prevent mosquito bites to avoid being infected with Zika virus and to prevent further spread of the virus. Zika can be passed through sex from a person who has Zika to his or her sex partners. Correct and consistent use of condoms and other barrier methods can prevent sexual spread of the virus. For more information, visit: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/transmission/sexual-transmission.html.

To prevent mosquito bites:

To learn more about preventing Zika, visit www.cdc.gov/zika.


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