Congressional dithering on combating the Zika virus not only leaves Americans at risk, it’s also undermining emergency preparedness across the nation. Lawmakers shouldn’t need another reason to adequately fund the fight against this mosquito-borne disease, but it certainly heightens the urgency for them to act swiftly.
The federal government provides much of the funding relied on by state and local public health agencies to prepare for epidemics and other disasters. But the monthslong fight in Congress over the amount of Zika funding has left federal health officials scrambling to come up with the dollars needed to understand Zika’s unnerving spread and why it can cause a potentially devastating birth defect.
With funding still not forthcoming from Congress, money intended for efforts such as state and local emergency preparedness are now being redirected to the Zika response, according to Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger. So far, roughly $744,000 intended for emergency preparedness in Minnesota has gone to the Zika fight. That has affected the state’s ability to replenish an expiring stockpile of medications, update equipment and hold training exercises. Reprioritizing these funds is certainly understandable, especially when infants are at risk and warmer weather’s arrival elevates the risk of mosquito transmission in the U.S., generally in southern areas. Nevertheless, it is ridiculous that funds for one important public health mission are being siphoned off for another. This is a wealthy nation fully capable of funding both needs.
The fight in Congress also boils down to a false choice about fighting one emerging disease or another. The Obama administration has asked for months for $1.9 billion — the amount disease experts say is needed — to fight Zika. The Senate has approved $1.1 billion. The House seeks $622 million and wants to redirect money dedicated to Ebola containment to Zika. Again, there is no need to choose between the two.
Zika’s emergence also serves as a reminder of how fortunate Minnesota is to have a state Health Department that’s respected worldwide. It’s no surprise that Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, requested that Ehlinger appear with him at a National Press Club speech last week.
It’s important to note that the risk of getting Zika from a mosquito in Minnesota appears to be minimal, though travel to warmer climates remains a hazard. Although one type of mosquito that can carry the virus occasionally has been found in the state, that insect typically has been imported in shipments of such items as tires from warmer areas. It doesn’t fare well in Minnesota winters.
Still, taking personal steps to eradicate the standing water that a variety of mosquitoes breed in remains important. The mosquitoes that do regularly buzz around during a Minnesota summer can carry other serious diseases — among them, the West Nile virus and encephalitis. Zika isn’t the only reason to wear mosquito repellent and take the usual summer safeguards.