One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of Congressional dysfunction. But Congress’ inability to fully fund a coordinated response to the Zika virus stands alone because of the seemingly blatant disregard for public health involved. With mosquito season just around the corner, it’s hard to see the delay on Capitol Hill as anything other than irresponsible. Congress must treat Zika as a health emergency and fully fund the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion proposal to combat it.
As of last week, US states have seen 503 travel-associated Zika cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 10 in Massachusetts and more than 100 in Florida. For most Zika-infected adults, the symptoms can be relatively mild, like fever and joint pain. But the virus has been linked to neurological disorders in some adults, and in pregnant women, it can cause devastating birth defects. Zika, transmitted by both mosquitoes and sexual contact, has been found active in nearly 40 countries in the Americas.
Astoundingly, Congress has taken three months to weigh the proper funding levels even as the virus has wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and Central America. In Puerto Rico alone there’s been close to 700 cases. The stalling at Capitol Hill has meant the Obama administration had to reach into a fund devoted to Ebola for its initial Zika response.
The House and the Senate are considering their own proposals this week, none of them fully funding Obama’s package introduced in February. Money is not only needed for more research to understand the disease, but also to develop a vaccine and faster and better tests for Zika, as well as for mosquito control efforts. Test wait times as long as eight weeks are only complicating the matter, and can come with a greater cost. Some pregnant women who may have been exposed to mosquitoes only have a short window of time to make tough decisions on whether to continue their pregnancy if a test comes back positive.
Congress should approve Zika funding before leaving for another recess. “Fulfilling half of the president’s request is at most a paltry Band-Aid,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada last week. Indeed, only a prompt, focused, and fully committed response will prevent the virus from doing the kind of damage it’s already doing to mothers, babies, and others in nearby nations and Puerto Rico.