GROUND ZERO for the Zika virus in the United States is now South Florida. The virus, which can cause severe fetal birth defects and other neural disorders, is spreading in a 20-block area of Miami Beach and another section of Miami known as Wynwood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning to pregnant women to avoid both areas and to people more generally to be aware of the risks. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can also be transmitted through sex and blood. Although the symptoms may be mild in most people, a new report suggests that it may also affect adult brain cells.
In the United States and its territories, chiefly Puerto Rico, there are now more than 10,000 reported cases of Zika, including 1,220 pregnant women with lab-confirmed infections. Many of these were brought into the United States by travelers, but local transmission is underway in Florida. The children of pregnant women who contract Zika may develop a severe form of brain damage called microcephaly, and in adults the virus may lead to Guillain-Barré syndrome.
For months, experts have not been shy about calling this a public-health emergency, which should be a clarion call to change behavior. For individuals, that means avoiding mosquitoes, and possibly postponing pregnancy. For Congress, it should mean providing the resources to combat the virus. Local governments and public-health agencies are scrambling to control the spread, provide diagnostics, educate the public and search for a vaccine.
But instead of acting, Republican majorities in Congress have taken the emergency as another occasion to grandstand and squabble. After President Obama asked in February for nearly $1.9 billion in additional federal funding to fight the virus, or about $5.80 per person in the United States, a partisan fight broke out on Capitol Hill that stalled legislation. Republicans delayed, then approved a far smaller amount with conditions they knew Democrats would not accept. Then Congress went on its long summer recess. Without the new money, the administration has been reprogramming existing funds intended for other vital public-health purposes. The delays on Capitol Hill are evidence of deep dysfunction. Could not a Congress that annually votes $580 billion a year for defense, and more than $40 billion for homeland security, approve a small fraction of those sums for the health and welfare of thousands of pregnant women and their babies? Isn’t health security part of national security?
The money will be particularly important for vaccine development, which requires clinical trials that can be costly and take time. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases this month launched a Phase 1 clinical trial on an experimental DNA vaccine; the results are expected in January and, if all goes well, a Phase 2 trial in Zika-endemic countries could begin next year.
D.A. Henderson, who led the successful drive to eliminate smallpox, and who died last week, attributed his success to the development of a stable, freeze-dried vaccine that could be easily administered, and a strategy of focusing vaccinations in a ring around an outbreak, rather than a more expansive mass vaccination. His innovative thinking and determination saved millions of lives. His legacy ought to inspire researchers now racing to develop a Zika vaccine. And Congress ought to be embarrassed for starving the Zika budget in a purely political tiff.
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