Opinion

With Zika outbreak in Florida, Congress must end its political games

The Centers for Disease Control did a remarkable thing Monday. For the first time in its history, it issued a travel warning over health conditions in the continental United States. What led the federal medical experts to take such a step? Local transmission of the Zika virus in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami.

The warning is straightforward. Among the precautions: Pregnant women should avoid the area. The transmission, health officials say, was likely via mosquito, while most of the previous mainland U.S. cases were linked to travel to Latin America or Puerto Rico, where the virus is more prevalent, or to having unprotected sex with an infected person.

That the virus is now mosquito-borne in the U.S. is alarming enough. Worse, six of the 10 newly discovered cases were people who had no symptoms — they were discovered during a door-to-door canvass conducted by the Florida health department.

Health officials believe the mosquito transmissions are limited to the Wynwood area, and they are engaged in a mosquito eradication project, but at this point no one knows how many people are carrying the virus.

Zika generally doesn’t cause the infected adult any serious problems, but it can lead to microcephaly (abnormally small head) and other brain maladies in fetuses. So it’s good that the CDC is taking the spread of the virus seriously. Especially since there is so much more to learn about the virus.

Contrast the CDC’s response with that of Congress, which so far has done little more than play politics with the health and lives of Americans. The Obama administration sought $1.9 billion from Congress to combat the spread of the virus and to develop a vaccine, among other responses.

By the time congressional Republicans were down with it, the budget was whittled down to $1.1 billion, and included money set aside to fight the Ebola virus. They they also added some poison pills, including restrictions on access to birth control as part of their continuing attack on Planned Parenthood, and loosening some environmentally necessary guidelines on pesticide use.

So Democrats in the Senate blocked the measure and everyone went on holiday. Meanwhile, the Obama administration redirected more than $500 million to the fight against Zika, and has already spent about half of that.

This is a silly and dangerous way to deal with a public health issue such as an infectious disease. Now that mosquitoes are transmitting the Zika virus here in the U.S., Congress needs to stop playing political games with Americans’ health and make sure the administration has sufficient money to properly address the problem.  

Scott.Martelle@LATimes.com

Follow my posts and re-tweets at @smartelle on Twitter

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