Opinion: Now that we know Zika causes birth defects, will Congress stop bickering about emergency funding?

Zika virus

Lara, who is less than 3 months old and was born with microcephaly, is examined by a neurologist at the Pedro I Hospital in Campina Grande, Brazil, on Feb. 12.

(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday officially blamed the Zika virus for causing birth defects in infected mothers. It’s something that everyone believed to be true, but everyone has been wrong before. (Remember that flat-Earth thing?)

This pronouncement is based on study of existing data and comes just two days after the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat said: “Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”

In addition to microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is abnormally small and doesn’t allow the brain to develop properly, CDC officials say evidence shows the virus can cause premature birth and blindness. It can be spread sexually, meaning it’s not enough to avoid the bite of an Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to stay safe. In other words, a Zika outbreak is a potential catastrophe for the next generation.

Aedes Aegypti mosquito

An Aedes Aegypti mosquito is photographed on human skin in a laboratory at the International Training and Medical Research Training Center in Cali, Colombia, on Jan. 25.

(Luis Robayo / AFP/Getty Images)

CDC director Thomas Frieden said Wednesday that this report marks a turning point in the outbreak. But is enough to turn the minds of congressional Republicans resistant to forking over emergency funding? President Obama asked for $1.8 billion in February. Congress balked, indicating that the money left over from the Ebola outbreak ought to be plenty for Zika preparation.

That argument seemed a lot more reasonable last month. This week, not so much.  The U.S. has reported only about 700 cases of Zika so far -- half of them in tropical Puerto Rico -- but officials anticipate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cases in the Western Hemisphere this year. Yikes.

To its credit, Congress did pass a bill this week to incentivize pharmaceutical companies to develop a Zika vaccine quickly. And Obama did reallocate the Ebola funds, about half a billion dollars, but CDC folks say neither is enough. I am certainly no expert in public health funding, but it does seem to be pound foolish to drag our feet on taking preventative measures just before the mosquito season begins.


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