Zika threat in US getting bigger, experts testify

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At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, three senior U.S. government officials warned the Western hemisphere is under threat from the Zika virus, and that Florida, Puerto Rico and Brazil are the regions most at risk, McClatchyDC reported. The officials urged Congress to pass legislation stalled by partisan politics.

In Florida, officials reported 13 new infections on Monday, bringing the state’s total known cases to 282, said state senator Marco Rubio, who convened the meeting of the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee focused on the Western Hemisphere. Of the sunshine state’s cases, 129 of them were identified in South Florida, a total more than any other state except New York, McClatchyDC reported.

“The growing threat of the Zika virus as a full-blown public health crisis in the United States is a clear call to action,” Rubio said, according to McClatchy DC.

Addressing the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee focused on the Western Hemisphere, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Tom Frieden noted funds already redirected from other important public health activities are not enough to support a comprehensive Zika response. Frieden criticized the partisan disagreements that have held up the emergency funding.

“This is no way to fight epidemics,” he said, according to McClatchyDC.

In February, President Barack Obama sent Congress a $1.9 billion emergency Zika-prevention package that has been blocked by Republicans, who hold a majority in the House and Senate. On Tuesday, his administration warned that failure by Congress to pass anti-Zika funds before exiting Washington for its extended summer recess would "significantly impede the administration's ability to prepare for and respond" to the Zika threat this summer and beyond.

The CDC has recommended pregnant women not travel to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. American athletes and spectators can go if they observe safety precautions, Frieden added. The country has more than 100,000 cases of Zika, with at least 5,000 newborns affected by microcephaly.

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Forty countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere “are currently experiencing active, mosquito-borne transmission of the Zika virus, Judith Garber, acting assistant secretary of state for scientific affairs told the Senate panel, McClatchyDC reported.

“It is only a matter of time before we experience local transmission in the continental United States and Hawaii as well,” she said.

Rubio criticized those who’ve blocked funding for Zika research, vaccine development and other forms of prevention.

“It’s only growing by the day,” Rubio said. “And the links between our nations make this a hemispheric public health crisis.”

Garber reprimanded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, for his failure to bring a clean Zika funding bill— without the provisions opposed by Democrats— to a vote, McClatchyDC reported.

“This is an emergency (of the sort) that is always dealt with in the history of this Senate as a bipartisan response to meet the situation of the emergency,” Nelson said. “And now this has been used ideologically as a political message in a partisan-driven bill.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.