As temperatures rise in the United States and mosquitoes become more active, public health officials warn that insects carrying the Zika virus are going to start infecting Americans in the southern and southeastern states. But nearly four months after the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion to try to stop the epidemic in its tracks, Congress has failed to do anything at all about Zika.
"People hear the House passed one thing, the Senate passed something else. What that means is nothing has passed. Not a single penny has gone out of the Capitol to fight Zika," Ron Klain, the administration's former Ebola response coordinator, told The Huffington Post this week. "Now there's a conference committee that's going to have to try to reconcile these bills. Well, the mosquitoes are not going to wait for the conference committee, OK? It's June. Temperatures are rising."
Zika, a virus transmitted by mosquitoes or through sexual contact that has been linked to devastating birth defects, has already caused thousands of babies to be born with abnormally small heads and severe developmental disabilities throughout South and Latin America. While the several hundred confirmed cases of Zika in the continental U.S. thus far were all contracted overseas, Klain said that's going to change in the very near future as mosquito season ramps up.
"We're going to see people catch Zika in the United States who've never traveled, never gone overseas," he said. "We're going start to see this happen in the next few weeks while Congress is busy debating this... The majority [in the House and Senate] is preventing a response from being mounted that could help save American lives and prevent this horrible tragedy of babies being born with Zika-related microcephaly."
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and his Democratic colleagues have been pushing to fully fund the administration's request, and the GOP-controlled Senate was able to agree on and pass a bill appropriating $1.1 billion for Zika. But the bill the House passed would give the administration less than half of that, and Congress left for vacation on May 27 without passing a compromise bill.
Coons, who was closely involved in the response to the 2014 Ebola crisis, even visiting Liberia in the midst of the deadly epidemic, ripped into his Republican colleagues this week for their lack of response to Zika and other major public health crises.
"Take a look at three different public health challenges facing our country right now: water pollution in Flint, response to a nationwide heroin and opioid addiction crisis, and responding to Zika," Coons said. "All three of these are issues where we've moved forward responsible funding proposals to resolve them, and they've been bottled up on the floor of the Senate for months."
"It ought to outrage the American people that our Congress -- and in particular, Republicans in Congress, just to be blunt -- are not agreeing to fund things that historically we would have been able to achieve quick, bipartisan, responsible answers to," he went on. "Because these are legitimate public health concerns."
Instead of funding Zika prevention efforts using emergency appropriations money, Republicans in Congress have suggested that the more fiscally responsible move would be to take money that's been designated to fight Ebola and put it toward Zika prevention instead. Democrats and public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly object to that idea, because the Ebola epidemic is not yet completely under control in West Africa and could easily pose a worldwide threat again.
"We narrowly avoided a global epidemic of Ebola," Coons said. "It almost broke out. And so to take the funds that are dedicated to an ongoing response, both in the United States in our public health system and in West Africa, and move it over to a response for Zika -- while I understand the temptation to be fiscally conservative, [it] misunderstands what public health emergency response is all about, which is getting ahead of the problem."
Last week, the first baby with Zika-related microcephaly was born in the continental United States. Each child with microcephaly is expected to cost the health care system up to $10 million.
"The babies who are going to be born with this disease, this horrible impairment of microcephaly -- they are going to suffer from this for however short or long their lives are," Klain said. "And they are going to be a sad human testament to the refusal of some in Congress to fund what we need to do to prevent it."
Videos produced by Christine Conetta.