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Fight Against Zika Virus Headed Toward Political Deadlock

Fight Against Zika Virus Headed Toward Political Deadlock

The Senate on Tuesday gave President Barack Obama a portion of the $1.9 billion he’s requested to fight the Zika virus. Republicans in the House aren’t feeling as generous.

Everyone agrees that Zika, which has been linked both to microcephaly in newborns and Guillain-Barré, a condition that causes paralysis in adults, is a looming problem. There is no known treatment for it. The CDC estimates that 20 percent of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. commonwealth will contract the virus. More than 500 people in the continental U.S. have already been diagnosed with Zika virus, including 48 pregnant women, according to the CDC. In each case, the infected individual caught the bug while traveling abroad, but public health experts say it’s only a matter of time before the virus is transmitted in the United States.

However, there is political disagreement on how to confront the Zika threat. Lawmakers in the Senate  approved Tuesday $1.1 billion for prevention and treatment programs to combat the mosquito-borne illness. This is the result of a bipartisan compromise, and it comes more than three months after Obama made his initial request.

This is far short of the request from the White House that the president and many congressional Democrats are pressuring Republicans to approve. On Monday, Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the Republican-controlled Senate’s decision not to approve the full request “beyond reckless.”

It’s even worse in the House. There, Republicans have refused to approve any new federal spending, even if it is to prevent Zika’s spread. House members are now considering legislation that would redirect $622 million in existing government spending to confront Zika. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Monday that the House plan “funds these efforts in a responsible way, using existing resources — including excess funding left over from the Ebola outbreak — to pay for it.”

Meanwhile, amid growing concerns over the virus in Brazil — the epicenter of the outbreak, which is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics — the World Health Organization on Tuesday fell short of calling for the cancellation of the games. But Amir Attaran, a biologist and lawyer at the University of Ottawa, argues the risk to global public health outweighs the benefits of hosting them in Brazil. The virus is spread via mosquito bites and through sexual contact, and the WHO has declared it an international public health emergency.

“You don’t want to bring a standstill to the world’s movement of people,” WHO chief Margaret Chan said. “This is all about risk assessment and risk management.”

Chan cautioned that pregnant women should not travel to the summer games, and urged athletes to take precautions to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes. When asked if she would be attending the Olympics, Chan said, “I’m going.”

Photo credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/Getty Images

This post has been updated to reflect the Senate’s passage of the spending plan.