The mosquito that carries the Zika virus, which can cause severe birth defects in fetuses, has emerged in the mainland United States. More than a dozen new “homegrown” cases of the virus have been reported since last Friday, and Health officials have warned pregnant women not to visit a Miami, Fla., neighborhood where the recent outbreak occurred.
“It is a truly scary situation,” Tom Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday. “This is a really tough mosquito to control.” Some form of federal intervention is necessary in order to control the spread of the disease and to eliminate the Aedes aegypt mosquito that carries it. But, Congress has not responded.
In February, with Brazil and other locations in South America and the Caribbean targeted by travel bans, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus and to help prevent similar outbreaks in the United States. No one expected the president to get what he wanted, and most were optimistic (including this paper) when bipartisan consensus resulted in what appeared to be a $1.1 billion compromise.
But no final agreement on funding was reached on the Hill before the summer recess. This was in part due to the fact that Republicans added riders to the legislation, including proposals to restrict funding for Planned Parenthood and to weaken clean water laws, that Democrats could not accept.
With Congress not set to return to work until after Labor Day, public health agencies have been doing what they’ve been doing all year to fight Zika: using funds diverted from other health programs, such as the fight against Ebola. This is certainly not the way to develop a comprehensive program to fight the virus or to develop a vaccine.
In the Wall Street Journal, Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator, suggested that the lack of urgency on Zika may be because the disease is largely out of sight: “Zika is easily underestimated because symptoms are not obvious, and the most grave health consequence — birth defects in babies born to infected mothers — occur months in the future.” But he added: “Already, more than 5,000 people in the U.S. and its territories have tested positive for Zika; more than 300 pregnant women in the continental U.S. have the virus.”
Continued congressional inaction on the Zika threat is unacceptable. Lives are literally at stake. And with the spread of the virus, the health threat is becoming even more pronounced. Partisan bickering and related efforts to win points on other issues are a distraction. There is a growing public health disaster in Florida that the federal government needs to address.