Senators Urged to Revisit Funding Zika Fight

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Health experts urged Senators on Wednesday to let funding flow to the fight against the Zika virus, one day after the Senate was unable to move forward on $1.1 billion in spending to help curb the growing threat from the disease.
     The Senate’s Republican leadership yesterday suggested the body was done with the issue after Democrats balked at supporting a measure they said was loaded with provisions meant to prevent the cash from going to birth control providers like Planned Parenthood.
     Despite this, health experts testifying before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs warned that time is of the essence and work needs to begin on combating the Zika virus.
     “History has taught us, especially with HIV, that if we wait even a year or two and we let the virus get an upper hand, it’s going to cost much, much more later on to deal with the consequences,” David O’Connor, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at University of Wisconsin-Madison told Senators Wednesday.
     Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat, principle deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control, repeated the call for more money, saying the government needs to provide funds so labs can start to develop new tests to detect Zika and start work on a vaccine.
     Beyond that, new research into the disease is necessary to help map out the response to a crisis scientists, the government and the general public still know little about.
     “I echo the idea that this is a critical time because studies that are carried out right now really help us guide our response and get critical information to people who are scared or trying to protect themselves and their families,” Schuchat told the committee.
     Zika is a virus spread through mosquito bites that can cause microcephaly, a birth defect that causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads that can lead to developmental delays or even death.
     The virus can also spread through sexual contact and despite its dangers for pregnant women, the symptoms can be so mild that some people might not even realize they have it.
     But those appearing before the committee Wednesday its members that much is still unknown about the disease because of the relative lack of research on it. For example, scientists still aren’t sure how long a person is immune to Zika after being infected, why the virus remains in a pregnant woman’s blood longer than it does it that of others, or how Zika interacts with Dengue fever, a disease that is present in many of the same areas as Zika.
     “Because it’s an understudied virus we simply don’t know very much about it,” O’Connor told the committee.
     The $1.1 billion funding package that failed in the Senate Tuesday was $800 million shy of President Barack Obama’s request to Congress, but was a compromise between Democrats who wanted to fully fund the president’s demand and Republicans who were wary of how the administration would spend the money.
     Wednesday’s hearing was scheduled long before the vote.
     Afterward, Johnson said that despite what happened in the Senate on Tuesday, he hoped the testimony would help bump up support for Zika funding.
     “Hopefully it will get people’s attention,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get that funding flowing. You heard it right there. There’s a number of things that absolutely need to be funded across the board. Let’s not make this a partisan issue, let’s get the funds appropriated, let’s get them sent to these research facilities and the CDC. This is a real problem.”
     When Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, asked the panel of experts if they supported the Senate’s legislative efforts to fund the Zika fight, several answered yes and none objected to it.
     However, the experts waffled when Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., asked them to put up a specific dollar amount needed.
     Schuchat said funding the emergency request would be “critical,” but did not say whether that meant the full $1.9 billion Obama called for.
     The panel did join Democrats who blocked the agreement yesterday in calling for increased access to birth control as a method of fighting against the spread of Zika, especially in Puerto Rico, where access is poor.
     “We certainly think that decisions about having children are personal and to be made with the family and made with the specialist and with a woman’s healthcare provider, but access to safe and effective contraception for those who aren’t trying to get pregnant could be very helpful in addressing some of the threat Zika poses to pregnant women,” Schuchat said.
     While GOP lawmakers yesterday shot down the idea of another round of talks on the emergency funding package, Johnson said after the hearing he hoped to be able to find other areas where they can come together while the money is on hold.
     He specifically mentioned looking into being able to provide waivers to mosquito control workers that would allow them to bypass some federal environmental regulations on pesticides, an idea T. Wayne Gale, president-elect of the American Mosquito Control Association mentioned at the hearing.
     “Particularly in a moment where we’ve got to move fast on this, let’s maybe provide some waivers for some of these regulations that really are a real barrier,” Johnson said. “So hopefully we find areas of agreement.”
     While the Congressional response to Zika has been particularly partisan, O’Connor cautioned lawmakers at the hearing against looking for a single solution. Like in efforts to curb the spread of HIV, O’Connor said a wide-reaching approach will likely be the one that helps defeat Zika.
     “One of the things we’ve learned is that answer to how can we best manage this sort of question is all of the above,” O’Connor said.

%d bloggers like this: