The federal government’s failure to respond adequately to the Zika crisis threatens to create a public health emergency. Democrats and Republicans agree that something must be done, but funding is stalled by House Republicans who have tied it to the unrelated issue of defunding Planned Parenthood.
The Zika virus is linked to severe birth defects, including microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. It is incurable. Zika appeared in early July in Miami after the alert first sounded about the virus in Latin American countries. Florida health officials reported last week that 80 pregnant women had tested positive for Zika, and at least one baby has been born with microcephaly.
In April, the CDC released a statement saying that agency scientists concluded that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “This study marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak. It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly.”
Members of Congress have the power to reduce the impact of the virus by approving a simple funding bill.
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 in order to prevent Planned Parenthood from getting funding. Senate Democrats balked at the linkage.
Frieden told reporters that his agency has spent $194 million of the $222 million it had to fight Zika. Nearly $35 million has gone to Florida and that money is running out, fast.
This Republican-led Congress has acted abysmally on this issue, valuing a symbolic fight against Planned Parenthood over public health. It has been a losing fight in the past and appears headed that way again.
The Miami Herald quoted Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is running for re-election, and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs a Senate panel overseeing health care funding, as suggesting the Planned Parenthood language might have to be discarded. Indeed.
Time – and money – are running out. Congress needs to act.