The Ebola death reported in Liberia last month should have served notice to the U.S. Congress that now is not the time to let down our collective guard against this deadly disease and other emerging pathogens, such as the in-the-headlines Zika virus.
Mere hours after global health officials declared an end to the latest West African Ebola outbreak in mid-January, yet another death from it was reported in Sierra Leone. Tests confirmed Ebola caused the death, according to the BBC News, prompting the World Health Organization to warn of further flare-ups.
Against this backdrop, the rejection of an emergency public health funding request by a key House committee is shockingly irresponsible. Late last week, the House Appropriations Committee turned down a White House request for $1.8 billion in supplemental funding to fight the Zika virus. This mosquito-borne disease is linked to a serious birth deformity in Central and South America.
The committee is led by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky. He and other GOP leaders instead insisted that President Obama’s administration first use unspent Ebola funds. The Department of Health and Human Services still has $1.4 billion in Ebola funding, and the State Department has another $1.3 billion.
The fault with that recommendation should be obvious. It assumes — incorrectly — that the Ebola funds aren’t still in use or still needed. Unfortunately, this mysterious, highly lethal virus is far from vanquished. It remains capable of causing the outbreaks that triggered a panicked national debate in late 2014 over airline travel and border closure. The disease’s spread also raised troubling concerns about the time it took global health agencies to respond to the West African crisis.
The sums set aside for Ebola should remain dedicated to preparing for future outbreaks. Raiding some or all of these dollars to fight Zika would undermine the nation’s readiness and potentially slow its response to a future Ebola outbreak. It could also result in the dollars dedicated to Zika falling well short of what is needed. That’s of critical concern when weakened funding for the World Health Organization means a greater reliance on U.S. leadership and resources to combat disease.
Numerous top health experts have testified before Congress about the need for rapid, robust Zika funding. Among them: Dr. Tom Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Much of the money would go to these agencies to help develop better diagnostic tests, treatments and a Zika vaccine. Other funds would be used for mosquito control and to bolster medical care for children born with the deformity. The Zika virus, which is carried by a tropical mosquito, has been linked to microcephaly, a head deformity that can cause lifelong disabilities or death.
Frieden’s and Fauci’s medical expertise should be respected, not disregarded. House Republican leaders should have approved the Zika request. Congressional leaders, including those from Minnesota — a state known for its world-class health care — must correct this mistake as soon as possible.