Commentary: Responding to the Zika Threat

Commentary: Responding to the Zika Threat

There have been 50 reported cases of Zika in Virginia, all linked to foreign travel, as of early August.

Last week, for the first time ever, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to issue a domestic travel warning to pregnant women planning to visit Miami, a popular getaway destination. This marks a sad milestone in our country’s history. What was once seen as a threat from foreign travel has now reached our communities, jeopardizing our collective health and safety, especially that of newborns. To date, more than a dozen cases of the Zika virus have been traced to local mosquitos in Florida, which reports nearly 400 cases of Zika associated with foreign travel. There have been 50 reported cases of Zika in Virginia, all linked to foreign travel, as of early August.

Countless times, as a nation, we’ve come together to find cures when faced with similar health crises. American ingenuity eradicated polio and slowed the Ebola epidemic. So, like many of you, I assumed Congress would meet this crisis head-on like it has done in the past. Surely we would expeditiously provide funding for this global disease. Instead, sadly, Congress adjourned for summer break.

Recognizing the urgent need to respond to the spreading Zika threat, the Obama Administration redirected close to $600 million in existing funds as a stopgap measure for initial activities. However, that will not be enough to fully address the threat. I support the President’s emergency request for $1.9 billion in Zika-related funding. Unfortunately, a counter proposal offered by the House majority is insufficient and saddled with extraneous and divisive policy riders.

The consequences of Congressional inaction could be devastating. States and communities won’t have the funding they need to fight Zika. State and local officials manage mosquito control and response operations. Here in Fairfax, we have consistently supported a program to trap and test local mosquitoes for viruses like West Nile and now Zika. Without additional funding from the federal government, we limit the ability of at-risk communities to sustain activities to reduce the spread of Zika once transmission begins.

Vaccine development may also be delayed. Creating a vaccine requires multi-year commitments from the government and private sector to reprioritize and spend money on research and development. The Secretary of Health and Human Services recently warned that, “Lack of funding will delay or prevent the performance of clinical trials … limiting the ability of manufacturers to make vaccines at the scale required to protect populations against Zika.”

We also need to ensure that there is enough diagnostic testing capacity available across the country. This is especially critical now with confirmed cases of local mosquito transmissions. Swift, accurate diagnostic testing is foundational to our ability to track and respond to this threat.

I was among those calling on Congress to cancel its August break until we addressed this challenge. We cannot simply swat away this threat. With the recent diagnoses of local Zika transmissions in Florida, Congress should reconvene as quickly as possible to partner with our states and local communities in responding to this growing public health crisis.