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Posted By: Tom Kenyon, M.D., M.P.H. on February 23, 2016

Labels: Americas

Project HOPE is addressing the Zika virus in the Dominican Republic

Congress simply must act. 

If lawmakers in both parties don’t rapidly approve the request the President lodged on Monday, February 22 for $1.9 billion to combat the Zika virus epidemic sweeping the Western Hemisphere, there could be devastating consequences for Americans, especially unborn children. 

Time is not on our side. Yes, we need better science around what is going on with Zika virus, but in the meantime millions of pregnant women and unborn fetuses are at risk and need support now to avert a further disaster.  The virus can cause microcephaly, a tragic, irreversible condition, which depending on its severity, can be accompanied by a range of complications, including mental retardation. Thousands of cases of this heart rending disease, which can deal a crushing blow to the hopes of expectant parents, have already been recorded. And there are major societal implications as the integrity of the reproductive process — which underpins humanity itself, is at risk. 

The CDC once estimated that the lifetime costs of caring for a child suffering from mental retardation topped a million dollars. So averting less than 2,000 cases of microcephaly and mental retardation would offset the President’s request. And this is an investment that will deliver returns many times over. In fact, if Congress approves this investment, Americans will be getting a bargain. An important knock on effect of funding this program will also lead to lasting control of mosquitos that can spread disease and stronger public health systems that could prevent other outbreaks of disease from reaching America’s shores.

There is no time to lose because the Zika virus is already on its way. With 26 countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere already reporting cases, with thousands of cases of microcephaly already identified, and with the mosquito vector already in America, the conditions are ripe for the U.S. mainland to be increasingly affected as we move into the spring and summer months. 

But while the threat is serious, history is on our side. In the 1940s the United States faced major mosquito-borne outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever in the southern states that were brought under control through public health investment and hard work, leading to the formation of the CDC in Atlanta. 

But before we can tackle the Zika outbreak, we need Congress to do its part. It is being suggested that the quickest way of funding the President’s request would be to divert resources currently being used to contain Ebola in West Africa. But this makes little sense — in fact it would be like diverting the fire hose from a house fire that is smoldering, to one that is in flames. It only takes a puff of wind for the original conflagration to ignite again.

Does Congress really want to run the risk of having BOTH Ebola and Zika virus cases in the mainland U.S. in the coming months? Really? Time will tell, but this is not the time for Congress to belabor this issue.

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