When Congress returns to work this week after a privileged seven-week recess, the spreading Zika crisis must be the highest priority on the agenda. Just before fleeing Washington for the long summer vacation, Congress failed to provide the resources to combat this public-health emergency. Instead, political grandstanding once again quashed essential legislation.
Conditions have entered a critical stage. Emergency funding from the Obama administration to mitigate the void left by a dysfunctional Congress is almost depleted. On Tuesday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, issued a warning about that and also stated that if Congress once again failed to pass Zika funding legislation, the country would lack the resources to fight the virus. With South Florida the epicenter for the Zika virus, another cluster of cases elsewhere would leave the CDC unable to provide emergency funds.
Despite the worsening situation, Congress shamefully ignored repeated calls to put the recess on hold in order to deal with additional Zika funding. The Obama administration has been raiding other accounts to fund various Zika efforts, first diverting $600 million intended to fight Ebola. That came soon after Congress flinched at approving the president’s February request for $1.9 billion.
Congress dithered until the Senate approved $1.1 billion. But the GOP-controlled House did not advance clean legislation, instead inserting political objectives outside the scope of Zika — limits on the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood. Senate Democrats blocked the bill from passage. The illogical provision on Planned Parenthood banned government funding of contraceptives — a valuable weapon against Zika, which can be transmitted sexually.
The administration also redirected funds from research into cancer, diabetes and other deadly diseases, pumping the money into the development of Zika vaccines. The first phase of a vaccine clinical trial began in early August, but without additional funding the second phase could be delayed. Meanwhile, researchers at Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health published a study that identifies the
Other Zika efforts would be jeopardized as well, including prevention kits and mosquito control — the latter highly effective in a Miami Beach neighborhood where local infections have been found. Most cases are travel related as infected individuals enter the United States from mostly Caribbean and South American nations where Zika is prevalent. Last week, the Florida Department of Health put the number of travel-related infections at 558, local cases at 46 and infections among pregnant women at 78. Manatee and Sarasota counties only report a handful of travel-related cases.
The mosquito that carries the Zika virus as well as dengue and chikungunya only has a very limited territorial range during its short lifespan — typically two to four weeks, depending on conditions. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adulticide treatments within 100–200 yards or meters around the home of an infected individual, reflecting that short range.
Manatee County Mosquito Control is now working jointly with the state DOH to contain the area around an infected person’s residence, even returning to apply an extra dose as a precaution. The Manatee agency’s aggressive response to this health threat is reassuring.
While the virus is a fairly minor ailment in adults, save for some, Zika is devastating to a fetus. Zika-related microcephaly causes abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. Babies with microcephaly often have a series of developmental problems, including intellectual disability, hearing loss and vision problems and problems with movement and balance.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 72 percent of Americans of all political persuasions favor congressional funding to study and prevent Zika. But politicians disregard the people when pursuing an agenda driven by dogma, the factor crippling Washington with gridlock.
Senate Republicans scheduled a Tuesday vote on another $1.1 billion Zika bill. House Republicans would be irresponsible to submarine new legislation with more politically poisonous pills. Urgent action is vital to subduing this public-health threat.