Where’s Congress on Zika? Nowhere!

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Elison holds 2-month-old brother, Jose Wesley, born with microcephaly, in December at their home in Brazil.
Elison holds 2-month-old brother, Jose Wesley, born with microcephaly, in December at their home in Brazil. AP

More than 100 days after the first cases of Zika were reported in Florida, leaders of Congress stubbornly continue to turn a deaf ear to pleas for additional federal funding. The indifference shown by lawmakers in the face of an identifiable health threat is both impossible to ignore and hard to fathom.

President Obama wants $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika, and he’s drawn rare — and commendable — bipartisan support from Florida’s two U.S. senators.

Democrat Bill Nelson calls the spread of Zika in Florida a “full-blown crisis.” Republican Marco Rubio has been equally emphatic: “It is the obligation of the federal government to keep our people safe, and this is an imminent and real threat to the public safety and security of our nation and our people.”

Both have beseeched colleagues to support additional funding. Yet Congress has resisted this plea for help since February, when President Obama first sought emergency aid.

The president was able to “re-purpose” nearly $600 million left over from the fight against Ebola to the battle against Zika, but it’s not nearly enough. And while Congress idles, the rate of infection grows exponentially.

Since Jan. 19, when the Florida Department of Health reported the first three cases in the state, two in Miami-Dade County, the number of infected people in the state has surpassed 100. That’s the highest number in any state. On Friday, two more cases were confirmed in Miami-Dade, where 42 people have contracted the disease this year.

By last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 472 cases in the continental United States. That’s in addition to 629 cases in Puerto Rico, where the first known death from Zika recently was documented.

And still Republican leaders in Congress, such as Texas Sen. John Cornyn, scoff at the concerns about Zika as “overblown.” He said Zika-aid supporters are asking for a blank check. Not so, senator. Money is needed to pay for mosquito-control efforts, scientific research into the disease and the development of a vaccine, medical care for those infected and educational materials for the public.

Essentially, Republicans won’t consider helping besieged states like Florida unless they get offsetting spending reductions elsewhere in the budget. That’s no excuse for inaction. The imminent arrival of the summer mosquito season adds to the urgency for an effective response, as does the transit through Florida of tens of thousands of people potentially exposed to the virus traveling to and from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, where thousands are already infected.

The biggest health threat from Zika is to pregnant women and their newborn children, who can suffer from microcephaly, which causes babies’ heads to be much smaller than normal. For some Zika victims, the consequences are minimal; for others it can be debilitating. And, as the fatality in Puerto Rico shows, it can also lead to death.

This week, Gov. Rick Scott, who was commendably quick to declare a state emergency over Zika months ago, plans to travel to Washington to urge senators to stop stalling and come up with money and a plan to fight Zika.

Congressional leaders should pay attention. The Zika virus represents a genuine health emergency. Florida and other targeted states need help. This is a time to act, not a time for partisan politics.