In February, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus and prevent a major outbreak in the United States. Last week, the Republican-controlled Congress finally responded, and it looks like the Senate and possibly the House of Representatives will soon vote on their own measures.
Even though the figure emerging from the Republican leadership — $1.1 billion — is smaller than the White House request, we are pleased to see Congress finally moving on this issue. But until actual funds are made available for this vital need, the slow-moving legislative branch will be responsible for what could end up being a public health disaster.
There is no vaccine for Zika, so part of the emergency funds would go toward vaccine research. And while Zika produces mild symptoms in most people, pregnant women infected with the disease are at substantial risk for having children with birth defects. Researchers who reviewed a surge in such cases in Brazil have concluded that Zika causes the birth defect microcephaly and the autoimmune condition Guillain-Barré syndrome, both life threatening.
In its February request, the White House made clear that the requested funding would be used for actual treatment, research, education and prevention. Given the apocalyptic threat of the Zika virus, they are all needed. In fact, since new research shows that the virus likely will not be confined to hot, Southern zones, as was previously thought, it is becoming all the more clear that steps need to be taken to better track the spread of the virus and to find ways to control the mosquitoes that infect humans with the virus.
Zika has been detected in the Aedes albopictus mosquito, which travels as far north as New England, and that mosquito is also more common than the Aedes aegypti species that has been the focus of cases in Latin America. In Puerto Rico, the first case of Zika-related microcephaly case — a fetus — was announced on Friday. The commonwealth reportedly has 925 cases of Zika, including 128 pregnant women. Those numbers are almost certain to rise.
When Congress failed to act earlier in the year, the administration moved $589 million from other projects — including the effort to combat the Ebola virus, whose crisis has passed for now — for immediate Zika use. More is needed. When Congress finally agrees to fund this necessary public health campaign, we hope it will be at the necessary level, and that it will come in time.
Lives literally depend on it.