After more than eight months of debate and political posturing, on September 28th Congress finally passed a bill that will help fund anti-Zika efforts in the United States and its territories. Although it appropriates only $1.1 billion of the $1.9 billion originally requested by President Obama, it does allow some of the money to be provided to Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico for necessary contraceptive and educational purposes (under the Hyde Amendment federal money is not available for abortion services). This had been a major point of contention earlier in the debate process; House Republicans did not want this funding to be made available despite the fact that Zika is a sexually transmitted disease and many of the affected Puerto Ricans are pregnant women. In fact, the CDC listed family planning services as one of the first lines of defense against the spread of Zika; it certainly is good news that Congress has finally conceded this point.
In addition, it is possible that more funding will come in several months. The continuing appropriations bill that was passed, H.R. 5325, is a stopgap measure meant to keep the government funded until December, when a more comprehensive bill could be passed. Unfortunately, the lame duck congress may not approve another bill in December, in which case a vote would be further delayed until the start of the new administration in the spring. For this reason, it is important to continue putting pressure on our representatives; the fight against Zika is not over.
It is estimated that 23,000 people, including 2000 pregnant women, have contracted Zika in the US and its territories already. Many of these cases originated while Congress was debating over relief funds; summer is the season during which mosquitoes come out in force. Even though some funds have finally been secured, much of the damage has already been done.
At the Coalition for Health Funding’s Capitol Hill briefing, Zika: A Case Study in Emergency Response across the Public Health Spectrum, presenter Phyllis Arthur said that what Congress needs to provide in a public health system is a robust infrastructure that is prepared to be proactive in advance of a crisis. The response to Zika has not met this test. Because the aid was delayed for so long, the NIH and CDC were forced to transfer money from other disease-fighting efforts to fund Zika prevention efforts. $500 million was taken from Ebola prevention funds, $11 million from tuberculosis, malaria, and flu, $47 million from reprogrammed Ebola funds, and $34 million from other NIH institutes, including the National Cancer Institute. H.R. 5325, because it contains only half of the funds requested by the President, does not provide enough money to pay back these debts. “We may never get to officially pay that back,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Tony Fauci told NBC News (Maggie Fox, “Congress Finally Passes Zika Funding Bill; Provides $1.1 Billion“, September 29, 2016).
In addition, it is inevitable that some children of mothers infected with Zika will be born with disabilities. It is estimated that the lifetime cost to provide care for each baby born with microcephaly is somewhere between $1 million and $10 million. It is important that these children receive this funding and the support that they deserve. The current situation, while it could be worse, is an example of what can happen when Congress attempts to use public health as a means to achieve additional, unrelated political goals. If you would like to contact your Congressperson in regards to the importance of future Zika funding but don’t know who your representative is, visit Congress’s Find Your Representative tool to find out.