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What Zika fighters urgently need from Congress

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(Bloomberg View) — So far, the only mosquitoes in America carrying the Zika virus are confined to one neat square mile north of downtown Miami. And public health officials seem confident that they will be able to keep most of them there.

There is no reason for panic, in other words. The U.S. is unlikely to experience a widespread epidemic of Zika. But there is ample reason for frustration, and Congress needs to ensure that state and federal public health authorities get the funding they need.

Related: Pregnant women should avoid Miami Zika outbreak area, CDC warns

More than 1,650 people in the U.S. have been infected with Zika, after traveling to other countries or through sex. The mosquito that carries Zika inhabits a coast-to-coast swath of the southern U.S. So it’s quite possible that local transmission of Zika will happen in other parts of the U.S. as well. The Gulf Coast is especially vulnerable.

Yet Congress has still not allocated a dime toward containing the threat of Zika or developing a vaccine to prevent it.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is helping Florida contain its infected mosquitoes, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is trying to better understand Zika and help develop vaccines and treatments, have borrowed money from other parts of their budgets to keep working at full speed. But Anthony Fauci, the NIAID director, has warned that his agency is “preciously close” to running out of money.

The NIAID has too little money to prepare for a Phase II vaccine trial that should be scheduled for January.

Some congressional Democrats are calling for an emergency session to finally fund the $1.9 billion Zika spending bill that President Barack Obama sent in February. At the very least, Congress should pass that legislation the moment it reconvenes after Labor Day — and without the partisan poison pills Republicans tried to add to a truncated version of the request last month.

It’s impossible to argue that fighting Zika is not a task for government, and it’s very difficult to say that more money is unnecessary or wasteful. County officials in Florida, for example, are applying pesticides and dumping standing water, where mosquitoes breed. This kind of slow, painstaking work will need to be accompanied by more research to develop vaccines and medicines and to create better weapons for controlling the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry not only Zika but also dengue, yellow fever and other viruses. Without wasting any more time, Congress needs to make all this work possible.


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