Right now, few things other than mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus likely have lower public approval ratings than Congress. In the latest Gallup Poll, just 13 percent of Americans gave a thumbs up to the way members of Congress are doing their jobs — a ridiculously low figure suggesting disdain is widespread and bipartisan.
It’s also richly deserved in the wake of elected officials’ dereliction of duty when it comes to an emerging public health threat: the Zika virus, which can cause serious birth defects and has now established an alarming beachhold in the trendy Miami neighborhood of Wynwood. Instead of resolving differences over fully funding the fight against Zika, members of Congress left town for a seven-week vacation.
Just a wild guess: Few, if any, will be bringing their families to Wynwood.
The inability to bridge discord over the disease is especially galling given the rising alarm over Zika’s spread and how much is still being learned about its transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now advising pregnant women to avoid travel to Wynwood, where what appears to be the nation’s first cluster of locally acquired cases has been detected.
Cases before now generally have been travel-related, meaning that people were bitten abroad by mosquitoes carrying the viruses. The Wynwood cases suggest the mosquitoes in the locality can transmit Zika.
The CDC is also advising that couples who are expecting to avoid sex or use a condom during a pregnancy if the woman’s partner has traveled to the neighborhood. Mosquitoes are the main way Zika spreads, but sexual transmission is also possible.
That the Zika advisories are currently limited to a small area near oceanfront Miami offers little comfort. There is no treatment or vaccine against the disease. Minnesotans in particular also understand how difficult it is to contain and eradicate the two species of mosquitoes capable of carrying the disease. It’s distressingly easy to comprehend how quickly this disease could spread throughout the southern part of the U.S., or even into other regions. While Minnesota is on the northern edge of one of the mosquito species’ range, state residents also often travel to warmer, much-higher-risk destinations.
It’s to Minnesota’s credit that this state’s senators are leading the charge to end the congressional recess. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken signed a letter Thursday urging Senate and House leaders to “help the American public, especially women and families,” amid this crisis.
Leaving Zika funding in limbo should never have happened. A $1.1 billion emergency spending measure easily cleared the Senate with bipartisan support. It was less than the $1.9 billion than President Obama requested, but far more generous than the House measure and enough to adequately fund front-line efforts to control Zika and fuel the medical research required to find a vaccine. It also didn’t require diverting money set aside to fight other diseases — such as Ebola.
Congressional critics contend that the Obama administration should spend sums cobbled together to fight the disease until an aid package is approved. Health officials, however, rebutted that argument this week with a detailed accounting of how the funds are quickly dwindling.
Officials also warned that further inaction could jeopardize Zika vaccine research. It’s time to end the recess. The mosquitoes and public health officials battling them aren’t taking a long summer break. Neither should Congress.