After months of negotiation and national calls to action, Congress will not provide any money to fight the spread of Zika in the United States this summer. The final chance this summer to fund the White House’s February request evaporated in the form of a failed Thursday vote in the Senate.
The White House said the funding cuts will hurt federal efforts to combat the virus. Vaccine development will be canceled or delayed. Any spread of the virus will be difficult to track. President Barack Obama previously blasted Republicans in May for not allocating money to fight Zika and criticized their proposal to spend funds left over from fighting Ebola on Zika, something the administration started doing in April.
Both Democrats and Republicans said they wanted to spend money to prevent the spread of Zika, but political disagreements ultimately trumped numerous health warnings. Senate Democrats refused to support House Republican additions to the legislation that would reduce funding for Planned Parenthood, defund parts of the Affordable Care Act and reversed a ban on flying Confederate flags in military cemeteries.
After this week, Congress will recess till September. That punts funding for research and prevention of a virus that is proven to cause severe birth defects in infants and has already infected more than a thousand travelers in the continental United States. Zika has infected more than a million people in Central and South America. Hundreds of babies have been born with shrunken heads, a disease called microcephaly, from mothers infected with Zika.
When Ebola ravaged Africa and fears rose that the deadly disease could spread in the U.S., Congress allocated $6 billion to fight the virus. So far, the White House has reportedly spent more $700 million in leftover Ebola funding to fight Zika.
There are over one thousand Americans in the U.S. with travel-associated cases of Zika, including 320 pregnant women. There are also 2,534 people in U.S. territories who are infected, including 279 pregnant women. In the U.S. there have been at least three reported cases of infants born with Zika-related microcephaly. On Wednesday, it was confirmed a baby born with microcephaly in Texas received the defect from the Zika virus. The child’s mother traveled to Latin America during her pregnancy.
“We are disappointed,” says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. “We confirmed the first travel associated case of Zika in Texas in January, and yesterday we confirmed the first travel-associated case of microcephaly.”
“It would be a lot better if we had those resources,” Shah adds. “I have to be honest, our team is stretched quite a bit.”
Shah says he hopes that should funding be passed after the recess, he hopes the funds could go towards retrospectively covering costs incurred by health departments during the outbreak response.
Before the vote, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell attacked Senate Democrats for blocking the bill. “This is a serious crisis that demands serious solutions,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “It’s time for our friends to start worrying less about pleasing outside political groups and start worrying more about actually helping the Americans who are counting on us.”
In a floor speech Thursday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid fired back, accusing Republicans of making the bill impossible to vote for. “The Republicans are choosing vacation over protecting pregnant women and their babies from these terrible birth defects that can be prevented,” Reid said.
Zika is transmitted by mosquito bites or through sex. More than 1,110 Americans now have Zika they contracted while traveling. Whether Zika has transmitted between people in the U.S. is unknown. But public health experts have told TIME they believe local transmission may have already happened and would be difficult to track. Local transmission is expected to be worse in Florida and Texas where the type of mosquito that carries Zika is abundant while travel to Central and South America is high.
There is no drug or vaccine for the virus.
— Alexandra Sifferlin contributed reporting.
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