This commentary originally appeared on The Hill.
In Pediatrics, prevention is everything. I spend my days giving vaccines to prevent Measles, urging healthy eating habits to prevent obesity, and counseling about smart contraceptive management to prevent teen pregnancy. So as a pediatrician, it absolutely baffles me that Congress has not passed legislation to fund a federal response for the Zika Virus, a response that can prevent an epidemic.
The Zika Virus, which has recently spread from South America to the United States and its territories, has two devastating qualities that make it a public health nightmare. First, anyone who is infected with Zika will either be completely asymptomatic or have a mild flu-like illness, and thus, unlikely to realize they are infected. Couple this with the second quality – the true effect of the Zika Virus occurs when infected pregnant women give birth to infants with microcephaly and other birth defects. The small head of children with microcephaly causes underdeveloped brains, which leads to lifelong problems such as intellectual disability and recurrent seizures.
Unfortunately the more we learn about the virus, the grimmer the outlook becomes. The Zika Virus is not only spread via mosquitoes, it can also be sexually transmitted as well as other means scientists are still investigating. The specific mosquito species, Aedes aegypti, is common in the southern United States; however another species, Aedes albopictus,that can also transmit Zika is found in the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are nearly 1,000 pregnant women with laboratory confirmed Zika Virus in the United States and its territories. Currently, there is no vaccine nor a definitive cure.
Despite this ominous picture, the Zika Virus can be defeated through simple, time-tested public health measures. The first and most important action is to control and eradicate the specific species of mosquitoes that can carry the Zika Virus. Other factors that can curb the impending epidemic are accelerating vaccine development, increasing availability of Zika specific testing, educating the general public, and improving healthcare access for pregnant women — especially the poor.
For all of this to occur, Congress must allocate funds to mount a robust national response. The Obama Administration requested $1.9 billion to fight this bubbling epidemic. Congressional Republicans have a $1.1 billion bill ready, but it contains toxic language to Democrats such as restricting the role of Planned Parenthood, weakening environmental protections for pesticide use, and cutting funding from the Affordable Care Act. Despite the complexities of the legislative process, the end result has been quite simple: nothing has been done. Instead of working together, Congress decided to take a seven week vacation during the height of mosquito season.
The American people need solutions, not bickering. Zika Virus funding cannot wait. Pediatricians are counseling parents about the risks of Zika for future pregnancies, and we will care for any child that develops microcephaly. We are doing our jobs; it's time for Congress to do theirs.