Don't hold your breath waiting for members of Congress to return to Washington to deal with the immediate public health threat posed by the Zika virus.
That would require putting the public interest over politics, an approach gone missing in action during this poisonous election year.
We've known for the better part of a year about Brazil's outbreak of birth defects tied to Zika. Fetuses exposed to the virus early in a pregnancy can develop microcephaly, the collapse of the fetal skull and destruction of fetal brain tissue.
Zika, whose mild symptoms make it difficult to spot, is a mosquito-borne virus like malaria. It is spread by the same strain of mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti, that triggered a dengue fever outbreak in Florida in 2009.
Given the easy transmission of the virus—infectious-disease specialists say it can be transmitted orally and sexually as well as through mosquitoes—it was obvious last winter that it wouldn't be long before it appeared here. There are now Zika outbreaks in more than 20 countries. Last February, the World Health Organization declared Zika a global public health emergency.
In the U.S., there have been over 6,400 reported Zika cases, including 855 among pregnant women. At least 13 babies have been born with Zika-related birth defects.
Over the past two weeks, Florida has experienced a cluster of more than a dozen cases in a small area of Miami-Dade County. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immediately issued its first-ever U.S. travel warning regarding Zika to pregnant women and their partners to stay out of a specific neighborhood to avoid being exposed to the virus.
With tourism to the state falling precipitously and some business groups canceling meetings, both of Florida's U.S. senators—Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio—have called on Congress to reconvene to pass an emergency appropriation to help combat the virus' spread.
Like I said, don't hold your breath.
It was politics that brought us to this impasse. President Barack Obama last February called for an emergency appropriation of $1.9 billion. The Republican-controlled Congress countered with $1.1 billion, but attached poison pills to the legislation. Want funding to fight Zika? Cut off funding for Planned Parenthood first.
But the larger issue raised by the current impasse is the need for emergency legislation to fight public health crises in the first place. In just the past few years, there have been outbreaks in the U.S. of Ebola, dengue fever, Chikungunya and now Zika. After decades of warnings from climate-change scientists, the era of increased threats from emerging infectious diseases is upon us. Just count the cases.
Yet the government still responds to each outbreak as if it were something out of the ordinary. The administration is repurposing funds earmarked for combating Ebola to the Zika crisis. HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell last week warned that the agency is exhausting its capacity to shift funds to meet the current threat.
The CDC is the federal agency on the frontlines of combating emerging infectious diseases such as Zika. Yet its Public Health Emergency Preparedness fund, which supports state and local efforts to combat infectious diseases and other public health crises, has dropped 31% from $940 million in fiscal 2002 to just $651 million this year. The hospital preparedness fund has been cut by 50%. Its own resources for running labs, providing technical assistance and monitoring potential outbreaks across the country has fallen 18%, from $1.7 billion to $1.4 billion, over the same period.
It's time to put an end to short-term political posturing standing in the way of government taking action in a crisis. We need Congress to create a permanent, adequately financed emergency fund—one not based on money taken from other programs.
Such a fund will enable the CDC and other federal agencies to respond immediately when states such as Florida need to combat public health emergencies, which will grow more frequent in the years ahead as the seas rise and our climate changes.