Health leaders from across the world recently gathered in Geneva for the 69th annual World Health Assembly. We met to advance the priorities we share and to tackle the challenges we face together. As part of that, we focused on our ongoing efforts to strengthen the world’s preparedness to respond to public-health emergencies and build strong health systems that we can count on when we need them most.
We know these emergencies well. The recent Ebola epidemic killed more than 10,000 people in West Africa, devastating the region and creating a worldwide panic. The severity of the crisis had a lot to do with the countries where the disease started. Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia — these nations lacked the needed resources and infrastructure. It took too long to recognize the scope of the outbreak and too long to respond.
Fortunately, with support from Congress, the U.S. government, working in partnership with the WHO and countries in the region, was able to help fight back against the epidemic. That’s in part thanks to the $5.4 billion in emergency funding that Congress approved in 2014, which enabled us to enhance our efforts to respond to the outbreak in West Africa and to strengthen our own response capabilities here at home, focusing on hospitals and local health departments.
Congress designed the funding package so that part would be spent over five years to strengthen the public-health systems of countries where there are significant gaps. The hope was to prevent what happened in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from happening elsewhere and better protect our homeland in a world growing smaller by the day.
That’s the cornerstone of the Global Health Security Agenda — a growing partnership or more than 50 nations, international organizations and non-governmental stakeholders working to build and strengthen necessary global health infrastructures to stop the next pandemic before it starts.
But today, our global community faces the threat of another infectious disease: the Zika virus. It has led to a frightening surge of a severe birth defect throughout the Americas. Across the United States, there are now nearly 2,000 cases of Zika, including in pregnant women.
The administration is taking immediate steps to respond. We are supporting state, territory and international preparedness and response efforts; educating the public; and helping improve mosquito control and monitoring. We’re also working to develop better diagnostic tests and accelerate vaccine research and development. But unfortunately, because of Congress’ inability to provide supplemental funding, the administration has been forced to fund our Zika activities with resources that were intended to fight Ebola.
To fully respond to this crisis, the administration is asking Congress for $1.9 billion so that we can lead a comprehensive effort to prevent, detect and respond to this disease here at home and abroad. That funding would expand mosquito control and surveillance activities, support testing and manufacturing of vaccine candidates beyond the earliest stages of clinical trials, and enhance lab and diagnostic testing capacity. And we need the funds urgently to meet the immediate needs of mosquito season, and to support Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories where local transmission is already occurring.
But some in Congress want to meet this challenge by stripping funds away from our Ebola response and our continued efforts to prepare countries to build up their public health capabilities. In asking us to redirect critical Ebola money to Zika, they’re forgetting the lessons we learned.
We have to finish the job on Ebola, even as we act now to slow the spread of Zika. We continue to see Ebola flare-ups in West Africa — seven clusters since the initial outbreak in 2014, resulting in 33 confirmed cases and the monitoring of more than 3,600 people.
We can’t sacrifice one urgent health priority in the name of another.
As Congress understood in 2014, an investment in our global health community is an investment in the health of our nation. Now, we’re looking to Congress to properly fund the effort to fight Zika, and to do it without sacrificing the commitments we have already made to strengthen global health security around the world and here at home.
Sylvia Burwell is the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.