Acting on the Zika threat

Mosquitoes were not a concern in Kentucky in February, when the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus a global public health emergency and President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion to combat the disease.

For the past two months, the Republicans who control Congress — prominent among them, Kentuckians Hal Rogers in the key role of House Appropriations chairman and Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate — have responded to the Zika threat by doing nothing — except blame the White House.

Now, as another spectacular Bluegrass spring melts into summer, the buzz of mosquitoes will replace the pollen in the air. And the National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that by June, Kentucky will have a moderate to high abundance of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries the Zika virus. (This species is described as an aggressive daytime biter that also bites at night.)

And, still, the Republicans in Congress are dragging their feet, doing nothing. They would rather expose their constituents to a birth defect-causing disease for which there is no vaccine or reliable diagnostic test than approve new spending or give Obama anything resembling a win. It’s unbelievable.

Rogers and other Republicans have complained that the administration has not provided enough information about how it plans to deploy the requested money. They’ve said the president should shift money from the fight against Ebola, as if Ebola is no longer a threat. The administration has shifted $510 million from Ebola and $79 million from other public health accounts into fighting Zika. Some Republican leaders say the money for fighting Zika should be offset by cuts in other areas and approved through the regular budget process, which means it would not be available until October, when the new fiscal year begins and the mosquito season is almost over.

None of that would be unexpected except we’re talking about a public health emergency, as in “a serious, unexpected and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.”

The response to Zika will have to be driven in large part by new knowledge as it’s gained, and there’s a lot to learn and do. Not only is there no vaccine against Zika, there also are no diagnostic tests, and most people who are infected will show either mild or no symptoms. However, Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly in which a baby’s head and brain are abnormally small, as well as other serious birth defects and complications.

Brazil, where the Olympics will open in August, has had a major outbreak of the virus which has reached as far north as Puerto Rico, where more than 600 Zika cases have been documented. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person who has the virus, so people returning from the Olympics can spread the disease. The virus can also be sexually transmitted and has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves.

Congress is taking a break this week. When it gets back, the Republicans should get over themselves and act as if they know what “emergency” and “immediate action” mean.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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