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Capitol Hill's shameful indifference to Zika

Is there a public health crisis Congress won't ignore?

As if the threat posed by the Zika epidemic wasn't scary enough, now comes word of a recent case in Utah where it appears the virus, for which there is no vaccine or medication, was transmitted by neither a mosquito bite nor sexual contact. It involves a patient who was a caregiver to an older man who was infected by Zika while traveling abroad. The incident raises the possibility, as yet unproven, that the virus can be passed through contact with other bodily fluids.

Zika has already been traced to hundreds of cases of birth defects, most of them in Latin America, but the disease has been spreading north as mosquitoes flourish in the summer months. Mosquito-borne Zika cases have been reported as nearby as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with health authorities warning that mosquitoes capable of carrying the virus, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are found in much of the United States, including Maryland.

The World Health Organization has already declared Zika a global public health emergency. Some athletes are declining to attend the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro for fear of contracting the disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted warnings for U.S. travelers to Rio to take precautions against mosquito bites and warns men who attend the Olympics not to have sex for eight weeks after their return.

Only one group seems remarkably unconcerned about Zika and the threat it poses to public health: the men and women of the United States Congress who left Washington last week for a seven-week recess without approving a dime more in spending to combat Zika. Last month, the House approved a $1.1 billion measure (which was already $800,000 less than what President Barack Obama asked Congress for in February) to help develop a vaccine, reduce mosquito infestations and take other precautionary measures. Yet the Senate could not muster the 60-vote majority needed to approve the bill, and now lawmakers are gone until September.

The roadblocks? The biggest involved funding for contraception and care for pregnant women and language within the bill that was designed to keep federal dollars away from Planned Parenthood affiliates. But there were also problems with how Congress would find the money to pay for it — as it raids $750 million from other vital health programs.

That Congress would leave town without coming up with what is, in the context of $3.8 trillion annual federal spending, small potatoes should outrage all Americans. A seven-week delay may not seem like a big deal to a bunch of politicians who have summer vacations (and/or campaigning) on their minds, but the timing could scarcely have been worse. It means some local communities won't have the money to spray for mosquitoes, and development of a vaccine will be delayed as researchers at the National Institutes of Health have already been forced to halt testing.

Republican leaders in Congress ought to be particularly embarrassed by this given how the party's convention-goers are trying to make the case this week in Cleveland that a President Donald Trump could get things done. The GOP can't even get a billion dollars out the door in the midst of a public health emergency to help spare mothers from giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a devastating and untreatable form of brain damage.

GOP leaders counter that Democrats have delayed Zika funding because most refused to support the Republican measure. But that ignores those highly partisan "poison pills" like the anti-Planned Parenthood provision that were sprinkled in the bill and could easily have been removed. And it was Republican leadership's decision to send everyone home without further negotiations with Democrats and ignore the mounting Zika numbers: The 2,680 Zika cases within the U.S. that include 481 pregnant women.

There may be more fearsome diseases on the planet — the majority of adults recover from a Zika infection without permanent disability — but rarely has a public health threat of this magnitude evoked such a unsympathetic response from Congress. Shame on all of them for not staying on the Senate floor until their work was done.

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