While Congress sleeps, Zika-bearing mosquitoes keep biting

Congress has gone on another vacation without approving funding to study and prevent the spread of Zika virus. Cases are beginning to multiply in the United States and according to Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases are expected to rise.

Zika virus causes microcephaly, a serious birth defect characterized by abnormal brain development and a significantly smaller head. The defect can lead to lifelong intellectual disabilities and seizures. Life expectancy for babies born with microcephaly is often short. Zika-induced microcephaly is preventable when Zika transmission is prevented. There is no known cure for microcephaly. Thus, prevention is paramount.

CDC Director Tom Frieden has stated that the estimated cost of care for a baby with the severe microcephaly caused by the Zika virus could be as much as $10 million per child. If 100 babies are born with this severe form of microcephaly caused by Zika, their care will cost the U.S. economy approximately $1 billion – roughly the cost of the bipartisan package passed by the Senate. If the inaction in Congress persists, the U.S. and its territories could easily see dozens or even hundreds of infants born with preventable microcephaly, an outcome that would be not only a human tragedy but a significant economic burden.

Sometimes the emergence of diseases surprises us, and we have to play catch up in response. In the case of Zika, Congress has willfully watched the disaster grow. Emergency funding to research and respond to Zika was initially requested by the president in February. This funding would support the development of vaccines, fund local health department mosquito control activities, and provide contraception options for women at risk of contracting the virus.

Rather than taking the lives of infants and their families seriously, Congress continues to play politics. The most recent proposed funding package for Zika merely drew funds from other public health activities. This would only serve to weaken the public health infrastructure this Congress has consistently neglected. Without new funding, development of a vaccine or diagnostic tests could be delayed or even stopped.

Before Zika hit, cuts to public health budgets were forcing many agencies to lay off staff. Now their need for personnel is even greater.  Until prevention efforts are adequately funded, the Zika threat will only get worse.

Congress returns from its summer vacation on September 6th. If it does not produce a responsible Zika funding bill, Congress will bear the full responsibility for Zika-related birth defects across the nation in the coming years. There is no excuse for the failure of our legislators to fund the activities needed to protect the public's health.

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Rosie Mae Henson, MPH, a 2016 graduate of the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, works for the School's Urban Health Collaborative.

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