The Pressing Need For An Emergency Fund For Public Health

The arrival of the Zika virus to the United States underscores the need for a new funding mechanism that enables public health officials, not politicians, to determine how and when to act to protect the American people. Though this threat just reached our shores a few weeks ago, we have known for months that Zika would emerge in the southern U.S. Yet, after months without acting and weeks away on recess, Congress still hasn't approved badly-needed resources to vulnerable regions--the Senate's failed attempt on September 6 is just the latest example of inaction.

Infectious diseases have become a greater challenge as people travel more often and populations interact more frequently. Weather patterns are changing and, with them, the migratory pathways of infectious elements. The speed with which diseases spread outstrips the pace of an intentionally deliberative legislative process. The give-and-take of Capitol Hill--even without the paralysis that too often results--is necessarily ponderous, and infectious diseases are not.

In February, the White House requested more than $1.8 billion to enhance ongoing preparedness efforts and support essential strategies to combat the virus. Had the funding been made available soon thereafter, we could have been more prepared for the arrival of "home-grown" Zika."

Instead the appropriations process unfolded--a Congressional ritual that included skepticism over whether the need was being overstated, a counter-proposal, the threat of a veto if the counter-proposal was not separated from the broader bill, suggestions that funding for the fight against Ebola could be diverted to this latest threat, and additions of partisan, non-Zika related amendments--all leading up to a seven-week Congressional recess for the political conventions, lawmakers' vacations, and preliminary campaigning for November. All of this underscores the fact that these two processes--one by which disease spreads and one by which the U.S. Congress adopts legislation--are incompatible.

Members of Congress are being roundly criticized for their failure to provide needed funding to combat Zika. That's the procedural problem in a nutshell. While we might forgive our lawmakers for taking some form of vacation, as Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told National Geographic, "Mosquitoes don't go on summer break."

What Congress should provide in response to the threat of Zika are two things: additional funding to combat this immediate threat and a new funding mechanism that provides public health officials with the power and the financial resources, to tackle emerging crises without waiting for politicians to act.

Bipartisan support is emerging in both houses of Congress for a rapid-response fund to fight infectious disease. Some have argued for a "Public Health FEMA," referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency which can respond to emergencies with greater speed. Creating such a fund would ensure that our nation's delay in responding to Zika will yield a capacity to respond quickly in the future.

As Ronald A. Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator, wrote recently in The Washington Post, "From now on, dangerous epidemics are going to be a regular fact of life. We can no longer accept surprise as an excuse for a response that is slow out of the gate."

At present, as Dr. Frieden told TIME, "We have an unprecedented health threat, and we don't have the robust resources that would enable us to respond most effectively. Without additional resources, this is like fighting a fight with one hand tied behind our backs."

And mosquitoes have access to that hand, whether it's tied or not.