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By Nathalie Baptiste | Jul 21, 2016
Florida reported the first possible case of mosquito-transmitted Zika Wednesday. But the summer congressional recess is in full swing and Congress closed up shop without appropriating funds to combat the illness that can cause birth defects in babies born to infected mothers, leaving reproductive rights advocates and public health experts wondering what comes next.
House Speaker Paul Ryan managed to get the majority Republican House to pass a Zika funding bill as part of a larger military spending bill, but Senate Democrats voted down that version because it diverted unspent Affordable Care Act resources for health-care exchanges in U.S. territories and siphoned funds from anti-Ebola programs. The House version of the bill had included $476 million for The Centers for Disease Control for mosquito control efforts and public awareness campaigns and $230 million for the National Institutes of Health to support vaccine development.
Democrats also cried foul because the bill undercut Planned Parenthood, the family planning organization that Republicans have been trying to defund since last year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that reducing unintended pregnancies and practicing safe sex are vital to fighting Zika. However, Planned Parenthood and other women’s health organizations did not receive any funding.
Planned Parenthood officials blamed the GOP for failing to come to grips with the gravity of the crisis. “Common sense would dictate that family planning services that help prevent transmission and prevent or delay pregnancy play a central role in combating this epidemic but apparently that is not the position of congressional Republicans,” said Dana Singiser, the group’s vice president of public policy and government affairs in a statement.
Excluding the case reported on Wednesday, every person in the U.S. who has Zika contracted it by traveling to an area where the disease is prevalent. Puerto Rico (which would have received federal funding) has already declared a public health crisis: Nearly 4,000 people have contracted the disease. Mosquitos that carry the Zika virus could thrive in Texas, Florida, and other states with subtropical climates. So far, Florida has over 300 reported Zika cases—43 of the infected people are pregnant women.
But officials don’t appear to be in a panic, despite the lack of funding from Congress. Florida Governor Rick Scott recently allocated $26.2 million for CDC Zika prevention kits (which includes a mosquito net, spray, and condoms), mosquito surveillance and abatement, and training for mosquito control technicians. However, Florida has a dismal track record on women’s sexual health and lack of funding for specific programs has alarmed public health experts who are concerned that not enough is being done.
There’s still a lot that health experts don’t know about Zika, and without funding for research learning more about the disease could prove difficult. In an exclusive interview with National Geographic, CDC Director Tom Frieden lamented Congress’s inability to pass a funding bill, “This is no way to fight an epidemic,” he said.
The mosquito-borne illness produces mild to moderate symptoms including fever, rash, and joint pain in most people, but pregnant women who contract the disease may gave birth to babies with smaller than average brains, a condition known as microcephaly. Zika is transmitted through a mosquito bite or sexual contact. More than 1,300 people have contracted Zika nationwide.
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