Congress, stop dithering and fund Zika fight

Miami Herald Editorial Board

A flyer left on the doorknob of a home by an inspector from the Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control department on Tuesday.
A flyer left on the doorknob of a home by an inspector from the Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control department on Tuesday. AP

Back in February, when President Obama first asked Congress for $1.8 billion to fight the Zika virus, the country was still in the grip of winter, with spring one month away. Now, here we are in the first week of summer . . . and Congress is still refusing to come up with funds to fight this increasingly harmful menace.

Lawmakers in Washington appear to be in no hurry to help, but here at Ground Zero, Zika looms as a very real threat to the health and welfare of our residents, and the need for help is urgent.

As of Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health had recorded 206 cases — by far the most in any state. Miami-Dade County reports the biggest number of cases, with 59, while Broward comes in second with 27.

Given that the onset of summer also happens to be the start of the mosquito season in Florida, those numbers are only going to go up, thanks in part to congressional dithering over Zika funding.

Money is needed to fight Zika because mosquito control, a central element of efforts to combat the virus, is spotty and underfunded. In Florida, the battle to squash the virus began months ago, but some two dozen local governments in Florida are collectively seeking millions of dollars to stop the threat.

They need to hire more inspectors, buy more insecticide, lay more mosquito traps and conduct a more-effective campaign to enlist the public’s help in eradicating mosquito-breeding areas.

At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a 58-page report on Zika but has a long way to go insofar as researching effective ways to combat the virus and helping those who have been affected, particularly pregnant women. They are particularly vulnerable because the virus halts the growth of blood vessels in an unborn child’s brain, causing the skull to collapse because of the absence of brain tissue inside. The child is born with a smaller head, an affliction called microcephaly.

The flat-footed response by Congress is baffling, particularly when compared to the way Republican lawmakers reacted to reports that a handful of Americans had contracted the Ebola virus in 2014. Back then, GOP legislators were actively exaggerating the threat, repeatedly attacking the Obama administration in the months leading up to the midterm elections for allegedly playing down the risk of Ebola.

In the end, Ebola never posed a serious domestic threat to the nation. The messaging died down after an election that saw Republicans make gains in Congress. Mission accomplished.

It should go without saying, but nowadays it’s necessary: Public health should not be a partisan issue. Scaring voters over a phony health epidemic is bad enough, but doing the opposite — withholding funds over an actual threat that has already affected hundreds of victims nationwide — is even worse.

It’s time for Republicans in Congress to stop playing politics with a serious health threat and help affected areas like Florida protect themselves.

The Obama administration’s request was whittled to $1.1 billion by the Senate, while the House allocated $662 million. Instead of lowballing the government’s response, lawmakers should approve the $1.8 billion Mr. Obama asked for because — as Sen. Marco Rubio said about the lesser amounts during the Senate debate last month — “That’s not going to cut it.”