It’s almost tempting to believe that congressional Republicans have stopped reading the news about Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that can cause the severe birth defect microcephaly. If they’ve been keeping informed, it would seem that only unmitigated disregard for the health of pregnant women—and for their gestating fetuses, usually such highly valued GOP constituents—could explain the plans that conservatives on Capitol Hill put forward this week.
The scale of the problem came through loud and clear in Tuesday’s Morning Edition interview with Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in which Frieden called Zika “an unprecedented situation.” “Never before have we seen a mosquito-borne infection that could result in a serious birth defect,” he said. The U.S., he warned, needs to start protecting pregnant women from Zika—for economic reasons as well as humane ones. “In addition to the personal tragedy, we're told by our experts that every one of these birth defects can have a cost of more than $10 million per lifetime.”
To recap briefly: In April, the CDC told the public that Zika is “scarier than we initially thought.” As of last month, 570 people in Puerto Rico, including 48 pregnant women, had contracted the disease, and doctors along the Gulf Coast—the part of the U.S. likely to be affected first—were advising pregnant and would-be pregnant women to take extra precautions. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he expects limited outbreaks in the U.S. this summer—a prospect made more worrisome by the wildly uneven resources and level of preparation for fighting Zika at the local level. As Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, wrote recently in the New York Times: “If I were a pregnant woman living on the Gulf Coast or in Florida, in an impoverished neighborhood in a city like Houston; New Orleans; Miami; Biloxi, Mississippi; or Mobile, Alabama, I would be nervous right now.”
The White House has said it needs $1.9 billion to effectively protect Americans from Zika. Friedensaid Tuesday that that budget would cover developing a vaccine and better diagnostic tools, containing the relevant strain of mosquito, running multiyear studies of Zika-infected women “to understand what the range of complications is and work to reduce that,” and more.
Unfortunately, Republicans made it clear this week that the administration is not getting its hands on all of those much-needed funds—or, at least, not any time soon.
First, on Monday, House Republicans unveiled a plan to reallocate $622 million from other federal health programs—much of it from the government’s Ebola budget—and put it toward the fight against Zika. The White House had already responded to Congress’ refusal to grant emergency funds by redirecting more than $500 million from its Ebola response. “We need to return that money so we can protect Americans against Ebola,” Frieden warned on NPR. “We can't get confused and let our guard down against one threat to fight the next one.” Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest compared the task facing public health officials with “the bureaucratic equivalent of digging through the sofa cushions to try and come up with the necessary money.”
The Senate voted Tuesday evening to pass a larger budget for the Zika response—though that, too, fell considerably short of the White House’s request. The bipartisan bill, advanced by Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Patty Murray, would give the White House $1.1 billion to work with. But that number could be shaved down further when the House and Senate try to reach a compromise on their differing bills. “[W]e are sending a very clear message to the House Republicans,” Murray said in a statement Tuesday night. “[W]hen it comes to public health emergencies like Zika, robbing Peter to pay Paul just isn’t enough. I urge House Republicans to drop their irresponsible, partisan legislation and ensure the Senate bill gets to the President’s desk without delay.”
In the meantime, mosquito season is upon us. On Morning Edition, Frieden urged pregnant women to avoid areas where Zika is likely to spread and urged their sexual partners to use condoms if there’s a chance that they’ve been exposed to the virus. As for Americans who live in Southern states? “We're really working intensively with health departments and environmental departments to track cases and reduce that risk,” he said. “And for that, additional resources are very important.”
Correction, May 18, 2016: This article originally misspelled the name of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden.
Read more of Slate’s Zika coverage, including: