Other Opinions

Don't play politics in Zika fight


This editorial is from the Orlando Sentinel and distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.

Many Americans may have become resigned to political gridlock in the nation's capital. The Republican leaders who control Congress, and President Obama, reflexively oppose each other's initiatives. It's how business doesn't get done in Washington.

But there should be no patience with partisan brinkmanship when public health is at stake.

It's been nearly two months since Obama formally requested that Congress appropriate $1.9 billion to fight the Zika virus. At the time, there were about 50 confirmed cases in the United States of the illness, which has been linked in Latin America to severe birth defects in infants whose mothers were infected during pregnancy.

Congress' GOP leaders have refused to approve that request. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. cases has climbed to more than 340, including 84 in Florida alone, the highest total of any state.

All U.S. cases so far have been found in people who traveled to other countries where Zika is more prevalent, but the virus can be transmitted by mosquitoes that are common in Florida, or by sexual contact. This is more than Florida's problem; as the weather gets warmer, those mosquitoes will spread across the South into the Midwest and the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Republican leaders have insisted there's plenty of money available to fight Zika from other sources, including leftover dollars that Congress set aside in 2014 to deal with another public health threat, the Ebola virus. And when the Obama administration announced last week that it would redirect nearly $600 million from Ebola to Zika, GOP leaders such as House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers declared victory.

But Obama administration officials stressed that the Ebola transfer covers less than a third of the funds requested for Zika, and the Ebola funds would need to be replaced. Ebola has re-emerged in recent weeks in two African countries, Liberia and Guinea. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a smart or sustainable approach to fighting Zika.

The Zika funds requested by the White House are earmarked for faster and more accurate tests to detect the virus, vaccine research, mosquito control, public education on preventing transmission, maternal health care, rapid response teams for outbreaks and assistance for efforts to fight Zika in states and territories -- especially in Puerto Rico, which has now reported more than 320 cases, almost all from mosquitoes. Partial funding could slow or short-circuit development of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and hamper mosquito control, the White House has warned.

Last week, Florida's junior U.S. senator, Republican Marco Rubio, broke with party leaders and announced his support for Obama's request for funding. "The best way to confront something is before it becomes a crisis, you prevent it," Rubio said in a meeting with health officials in Miami. "And I have full confidence in our local and state officials' ability to address this issue, particularly if they're properly resourced."

Rubio, who ended his bid for president last month, cautioned that Congress would need to make sure the funds were properly targeted and not wasted. That's a constructive, responsible way forward.

Florida's senior U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, also has called on Congress to approve the president's request. So as far as the Sunshine State's Senate delegation is concerned, support for the president's request is bipartisan. It should be throughout the other 49 states, too.