Congress could have done something months ago to ward off the Zika virus surge that has now gripped a Miami neighborhood, but House Republicans considered it more important to insert their own political poison pills into what could have been meaningful legislation.
Senate Democrats responded by stopping what morphed into a flawed bill. And everyone gathered their belongings and went on recess.
The Zika virus didn’t. It is linked to severe birth defects, such as babies with abnormally small heads and often underdeveloped brains, or microcephaly, which is a rare and incurable condition. Zika has now appeared in Miami, and was acquired locally – not after travel to previously affected countries.
The alert first went out about the virus in Latin American countries. Public health officials here have worried that the virus would spread across warm-weather states.
After some political wrangling, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill allocating $1.1 billion to fund vaccine development and mosquito control. But Republicans included provisions that would restrict access to contraception (think, Planned Parenthood) and weaken environmental restrictions by allowing a liberal use of pesticides. The bill also takes a bite out of funding for Ebola, cutting it by $107 million.
The Democrats and White House had wanted the Republicans to agree to $1.9 billion in emergency funding since early this year.
Now the danger has arrived in this country.
Federal health officials warned pregnant women to stay away from the Miami neighborhood where several cases of Zika infection have been discovered. Florida officials said the number of cases caused by local mosquitoes has risen to 14 from four. It includes 12 men and two women, although officials are not saying whether either woman was pregnant. All the cases have been in one neighborhood, Wynwood, a bustling area just north of downtown.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quoted in the New York Times, said the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus has proved formidable. The mosquito may be resistant to the insecticides or “may be able to hide in standing water.”
People are purchasing as much bug spray as stores can sell and unscrupulous actors are taking advantage of the situation. New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office sent cease-and-desist letters to seven companies accused of marketing products that claim to prevent or protect against the Zika virus. The products, his office said, are known to be ineffective for that purpose.
Officials have issued warnings concerning the Miami neighborhood that amount to cold comfort for pregnant women, or those wanting to get pregnant.
Congress needs to return from recess and deal with the problem by passing a well-funded bill that will effectively contain the Zika virus without compromising other important programs. It’s no time to play games.