The fight against infectious disease is nearly as old as evolution itself. So, it seems, is political infighting. But the stalemate in Congress over a $1.1 billion plan to fight the Zika virus is hard to fathom, even in a hyper-partisan era. It not only puts lives at risk, but courts deep skepticism about whether our government can live up to a core principle: tending to public health.
Just last week, Senate Democrats voted to keep Congress from unlocking desperately needed funds to combat Zika, the mosquito-borne scourge that has been linked to severe birth defects. The sticking point: Republicans refused to drop a bid to block Planned Parenthood from receiving any money.
But the toll from Zika is mounting, and it will take concerted work by public health officials and researchers to stop an outbreak that is already exploding in Puerto Rico and spreading in parts of the United States. Congress must work out a bipartisan compromise before the start of the new fiscal year in October. As of last week, nearly 3,000 cases had been reported in the US. Puerto Rico, whose 3.5 million residents are American citizens, has been hit particularly hard, with more than 15,000 reported cases — an outbreak that threatens to cripple a nation that has been in recession for a decade. And because Zika is a sexually transmitted disease, it can easily spread beyond tropical climes.
To cope in the short term, the government has been forced to funnel much-needed funds earmarked for other diseases — cancer, Ebola, and influenza among them – to keep Zika programs alive. But Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says the money has run out, endangering a Phase I clinical trial launched in August to test a Zika vaccine. Timing is urgent, Fauci says: "If we don't get funding by Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, I will have to dramatically slow down or stop these vaccine programs."
A vaccine is the best solution for the long term. Zika, public health officials point out, is similar to rubella (German measles), which caused birth defects in about 20,000 babies a year in the mid-1960s. But a widespread vaccination program staunched the damage, affording crucial protection for pregnant women.
Mosquito-control programs in Puerto Rico, Florida, and other states are also at risk, Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times. His agency has already spent the $222 million it was allocated to fight the virus. Although September typically marks the start of fall in New England and New York, peak mosquito season lasts until October on the Gulf Coast.
Without help from the federal government, local communities are on their own. Response has varied widely; in Lee County, Fla., a well-funded mosquito control plan involved a fleet of helicopters and planes. Other states have skinnier budgets; Alabama handed out coloring books to warn children to avoid mosquitoes. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that several southern states, which have higher poverty rates, are the least prepared to field a response to "large-scale emergencies." But Zika prevention should not be a privilege reserved only for the wealthy; protecting the health of a city, state, or country's population is an essential function of government, whether it involves protection from drunk drivers or mobilizing against an epidemic. As the social costs of Zika climb, the partisan bickering in Washington amounts to congressional malpractice.