Wednesday’s congressional hearing on the Zika virus was a sobering reminder of the never-ending arms race between medicine and infectious diseases.
While most who contract this mosquito-borne illness suffer few symptoms, the Zika virus, first identified in 1947, is behaving in new, disturbing ways. Cases are now widely reported in the Western Hemisphere, and it appears that the virus is associated with a post-infection illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis. More alarmingly, there’s increasing evidence linking Zika infection in pregnant women with microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with smaller heads and, potentially, incomplete brain development.
The link to this serious birth defect is “an extraordinarily unusual event,’’ said Dr. Tom Frieden, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing and is the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Officials are not aware of any other mosquito-borne condition causing birth malformations. Frieden listed just two other viruses transmitted in other ways that can cause them. The best-known — rubella — has been virtually eradicated, thanks to a vaccine.
Against the backdrop of this global health emergency, the $1.8 billion in supplemental funding requested by the White House to combat Zika in our hemisphere is desperately needed. While the outbreak is currently centered in Central and South America, weakened financial support for the World Health Organization means that the United States must take the lead in the fight against this emerging tropical health threat. Funding for the full request should be an easy and bipartisan “yes” for Congress. Instead, the proposal faces some regrettable political headwinds likely to slow approval, not the least of which is politicians’ need to grandstand to prove their budget hawk or anti-abortion credentials.
This self-serving behavior was on display at the well-publicized U.S. House joint subcommittee hearing, which was led by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. One of the dubious questions Frieden faced was whether he could redirect existing CDC resources to fight Zika. Frieden was polite as he said no. But it’s ridiculous to think that his agency and the National Institutes of Health can develop new diagnostic tests, treatments, a vaccine and best practices for mosquito eradication through the equivalent of shaking down agency cushions for spare change. Another idea floated in the U.S. Senate — diverting funds set aside to combat Ebola — is wrongheaded as well.
Abortion politics are also complicating expedited funding. The line of questioning made it clear there are congressional fears that the money will be used to promote abortion in affected countries. Frieden patiently said the initiative would respect the heavily restrictive abortion laws in these countries and that the efforts to be funded are aimed at protecting women and their unborn children from infection. This is a goal that anti-abortion politicians should embrace.
Thankfully, Minnesota’s congressional delegation has not been among those raising dubious doubts about the funding. Sen. Al Franken in particular merits praise for pushing to provide valuable financial incentives to private industry to produce new Zika treatments or a vaccine.
The mosquito carrying the virus doesn’t appear to be one that buzzes and bites in Minnesota. But the state is home to world-class infectious-disease doctors and a state health department renowned for tracking epidemics’ cause. Minnesota’s political leaders should reflect that expertise by ensuring that the entire $1.8 billion, not a smaller amount, is approved. But advocacy shouldn’t stop there. More reliable emergency funding that can easily be tapped for future threats is also needed. Viruses are constantly evolving. The CDC and other public health agencies shouldn’t have to beg Congress for resources the next time another threatens.