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We’re Fighting Zika ‘With One Hand Tied Behind Our Backs,’ CDC Director Says

3 minute read

It’s been a little over a week since the Senate failed to pass emergency funding for the Zika epidemic, right in the midst of mosquito season. And while Zika hasn’t started spreading locally stateside, emergency responders who are trying to fight it are already feeling an economic pinch.

“We have an unprecedented health threat, and we don’t have the robust resources that would enable us to respond most effectively,” says Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in an interview with TIME. “Without additional resources, this is like fighting a fight with one hand tied behind our backs.”

So far, more than 1,000 people in the continental United States have Zika infections from travel, and more than 700 pregnant women in the U.S. and territories have the disease. Utah is investigating the first possible case of person-to-person transmission in the U.S. and Florida is investigating a possible case of local transmission. Without the additional Zika emergency funding, Frieden says the agency is moving money meant for other emergencies to the response.

“We may have problems in states around the U.S. because money isn’t available to do things like respond to other outbreaks or address the health needs that arise with flooding or hurricanes,” Frieden says. “We’ve had to reduce funding for a range of emergencies to address the Zika emergency. That’s not a sensible way to do it, but it’s the only option we had.”

With the funding, Frieden says the CDC planned to launch a more robust effort to understand the full range of Zika’s effects on babies, including infants born with healthy head sizes though their mothers were infected. The CDC also planned to be further along in improving how the virus is diagnosed.

As TIME has previously reported, scientists say the lack of emergency Zika funding is also hurting their research. “Without a clear commitment from the federal government, private sector partners working on diagnostics and vaccines will choose not to proceed,” said Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, to TIME. “Meanwhile, countless other efforts to combat Zika will be jeopardized.” The first human trials in the U.S. of a Zika vaccine have already been delayed.

“I think if people share our frustration,” Frieden says, “they should make that known.”

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