Congress, Don't Forget to Protect U.S. Mothers from Zika

Republicans in Congress are pledging to approve funding for President Obama's Zika program when they return to the Capitol next week. But first they ought to do something highly unusual: read the bill before voting on it. 

What they will find is that the president is not leveling with Congress or the American people about his Zika plans. He claims that money is urgently needed to protect us. The truth, however, is that he intends to spend half a billion of that money on foreign countries, shortchanging states that are not equipped to battle Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

Zika is already raging in countries south of the border, from El Salvador to Mexico. But the Obama administration is keeping quiet about it. On Wednesday, May 25, the House Committee on Science was warned that the U.S-Mexico border faces the biggest Zika risk in the U.S. because of cross-border migration, concentrated poverty, and crowded conditions. Clinics in Texas are already caring for pregnant, Zika-infected women who have recently arrived from these countries.   

A high-tech remedy exists that could eradicate 90 percent of mosquitoes that carry Zika. At Wednesday’s hearing, Oxitec CEO Haydn Perry testified that using genetically modified mosquitoes to wipe out Zika-carrying insects poses less risk to the environment than currently used insecticides. But Obama’s FDA continues to delay approval, pandering to environmentalists’ vague, unsupported fears about genetically modified organisms. 

You won’t hear these facts from the president’s Democratic allies, who are tarring Republicans for delaying approval of his whopping $1.9 billion request for emergency Zika funding.

“What is the scientific justification for doing less than we need to do to protect the American people?” asks House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D. Calif.). If she had read the president’s request, she’d know that not all the money is intended for the American people. (This is the same Nancy Pelosi who said of Obamacare “we have to pass the bill so we can find out what’s in it.”)

Local preparedness is uneven. For example, Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston) has a hefty budget for mosquito eradication, while San Antonio — Texas’s second largest city — lacks equipment to combat mosquito-borne diseases.    

But despite repeated warnings over the last two years that many localities are unprepared, the CDC has done next to nothing to help, insisting that it doesn’t get “involved in state or local level mosquito control programs.” Meanwhile, the CDC has 1,700 staff members working in over 60 foreign countries.

This is the same agency that pushed Congress to approve a $5.4 billion emergency package for Ebola, including an unprecedented $3.7 billion to build labs, hospitals, and a public health infrastructure for African countries. $3.7 billion is three times what the CDC budgets for “public health preparedness,” or protecting our country from bio-and chemical terrorism, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters combined. Obama's Zika request is a repeat of the same, lopsided approach. 

The CDC has gone global, to the detriment of our local needs. Here in the U.S., the wellbeing of a mother-to-be hinges on how effectively her local government is tackling the threat of Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Any pregnant woman infected with Zika faces up to a 13 percent risk of giving birth to a child with microcephaly, according to new data from The New England Journal of Medicine. Those are terrifying odds.

Border counties in Arizona, Texas, and California are at high risk, according to last Wednesday’s testimony. In the past, these border counties have been hit with dengue fever — a virus carried by a mosquito commonly found in Mexico and Central America that also carries Zika. “Dengue is an outstanding proxy for Zika,” warns public health expert Amir Attaran. As many as 40 percent of residents in parts of southern Texas have been infected with dengue at one time or another, another indication of  the area’s vulnerability to Zika.

CDC director Thomas Frieden is now threatening to hold health departments hostage by cutting their existing federal funding if Congress doesn't approve the president's Zika package, potentially stripping American health departments of their resources in order to send money to foreign countries. That’s an outrage.  

The issue before Congress is not just how much money to spend but what to spend it on. The president’s plan would use our money to provide more aid to foreign countries, rather than protecting mothers-to-be here at home.

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