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White House: Lack of Zika funding 'will harm pregnant women and their babies'

Nancy Trinidad, who is 32 weeks pregnant, listens to the explanation of a doctor about how to prevent Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya viruses at a public hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 3, 2016.
Alvin Baez | Reuters
Nancy Trinidad, who is 32 weeks pregnant, listens to the explanation of a doctor about how to prevent Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya viruses at a public hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 3, 2016.

Congress must agree on a bipartisan bill to fund efforts to control the Zika virus before it adjourns for a seven-week recess next week, or risk irreparable harm to pregnant women and their babies, the White House said Thursday.

"The risk is growing every day," Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Amy Pope told reporters on a conference call. Without funding, "we know that we won't be able to begin the next phase of vaccine trials, that we cannot scale up manufacturing capacity."

President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion in Zika funds in February to support vaccine development, as well as efforts toward better diagnostic tools and mosquito control. In April, amid congressional gridlock, the administration allocated more than $500 million of funds from its Ebola budget to fight Zika, which public health officials say cannot be a permanent solution in efforts against either disease.

In late June, the House passed a $1.1 billion bill that was then blocked by Senate Democrats, who complained of "poison pill" provisions that made it untenable.

"It had all kinds of extraneous things in there, highly partisan provisions," Senator Bill Nelson of Florida told reporters Thursday. His state is expected to be among the hardest hit by Zika in the U.S. He highlighted restrictions to Planned Parenthood and diversion of Medicaid funds for Puerto Rico as two major concerns with the bill.

"This is how the Zika crisis is being treated, as a matter of partisan politics," Nelson said.

There have been 1,133 cases of Zika in U.S. states and Washington, D.C., and 2,534 cases in U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zika is not yet spreading through mosquitoes in the continental U.S., though public health officials warn clusters of cases may arise in states including Florida and Texas, which have seen outbreaks of similar viruses, dengue and chikungunya.

Zika has been definitively linked not only to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes abnormal brain development, but also other severe brain defects, CDC Director Tom Frieden said Thursday. He said each day as many as 50 more women in Puerto Rico, which does have local Zika transmission, are becoming infected.

"This is a great concern," Frieden said. "It has a devastating effect on pregnancy."

Nelson said he wrote to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to urge him to bring another $1.1 billion Zika funding bill, this one passed by the Senate and without the so-called poison pills, to the House for a vote.

"We are in the eleventh hour and 59th minute before Congress is gone all summer," Nelson said. "We have to get something passed."