Zika in America

The news that the dreaded Zika virus has arrived on the U.S. mainland has aroused deep concern, especially for those who live in Florida, where at least four cases of local transmission have been reported.

Beyond the risk of severe birth defects posed by the virus, Florida’s all-important tourism industry is also at risk. In the U.K., expecting mothers have already been advised to consider postponing non-essential trips to Florida.

But it’s not just Florida they will avoid. The Zika-carrying mosquitoes are not expected to stop at the state border. Texas is also very possibly on the itinerary.

“Miami has a very similar climate to Houston,” noted Dr. Todd Price, an infectious disease specialist. “Miami has the same mosquitos as Houston, and across the Gulf Coast. And so this is of urgency.”

Besides the residents of the south, another group whose vacation has been disturbed by the Zika’s arrival is the nation’s senators and congressmen in Washington.

It would be too generous to say that they were caught off-guard by the news. The looming health emergency was already under discussion in Congress months ago, after experts began predicting the spread of the virus northward from Latin America. The World Health Organization put it on the board as a public health emergency earlier this year.

However, instead of doing what any sensible legislature would do — like allocating some money right away to kill as many mosquitoes as possible, since there is no vaccine — they did what people infected with crazed partisanship would do: They fought over it.

The symptoms of internecine strife did not appear immediately. At first, it looked like they would address the issue sensibly. In February, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika. All were agreed that a sizable sum must be spent to battle the virus. After all, lives were at stake. But when it came to writing a bill to formalize the measure, instead of fighting Zika, they started fighting each other.

Democrats and Republicans quarreled over the source of funding. Republicans argued that rather than adding unnecessarily to the national deficit, money should be shifted from the Ebola funding and elsewhere. Democrats balked at contentious provisions in the bill. Extraneous issues, such as the environment and display of the Confederate flag, were dragged into it.

In the end, the Democrats said they could not vote for the bill in its present form, while the Republicans refused to back down. So they adjourned, and went on vacation without passing any bill to fight Zika.

While the politicians were bickering, the mosquitoes were buzzing. As Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said while they were still in Washington debating the matter: “It’s not like the mosquitoes are coming; the mosquitoes are already here.”

Time and money are running out, and alarms have been sounded from the field. “I have moved a fair amount of money from other accounts to do what I think is very proactive, on the [Zika] research; therefore, nothing has substantially slowed yet,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of infectious diseases at the NIH, on Friday. “I am preciously close to the point where I don’t have any money, and I’m going to start slowing.”

In the absence of an infusion of federal dollars, the states and localities are in the meantime left to dig into their own scarce resources to combat the disease. Such an underfunded, uncoordinated response to the Zika epidemic cannot be tolerated.

The politicization of a serious public health issue endangering millions of Americans — whose party affiliation will provide no immunity — is simply appalling. On a life-and-death issue like this, all other considerations must be set aside and an emergency funding bill approved — even if it means that some senators and members of Congress have to interrupt their well-deserved summer vacations.

Republicans are saying that the Obama administration should act now, transferring the $589 million that Congress authorized from the Ebola account. The wrangling over new spending can be resumed when Congress goes back to work in September. Partial funding at this stage would be sufficient, since even the federal government can’t spend the entire $1.9 billion asked for by the White House in a month’s time.

This is not a time for partisan squabbles but for responsible people on both sides of the aisle — and both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue — to come together and work together to confront this crisis.