Zika Politics: Democrats & Republicans

Author: David Kotok, Post Date: August 2, 2016

The haunting picture of the mother holding her infant who mostly cries in pain led to a new interpretation of Gaetano Donizetti’s phrase describing love. Below is the English translation.

One tear that falls so furtively
from her sweet eyes has just sprung,
as if she envied all the youths
who laughingly passes her right by.


Our congressional representatives enjoy their summer recess. Both political parties have conventioned, nominated, and vilified each other’s choices. Neither mentioned the political dysfunction they own with their respective behavior.

Meanwhile, a dangerous virus expands its reach as mosquito season advances. Zika has gained a foothold in the continental US. Health officials have concluded that local Miami mosquitoes are the likely carriers that infected four recent non-travel-related cases of Zika in Florida. Because the Senate has not passed a bill funding Zika prevention measures despite many months of partisan wrangling, the CDC is now “scrambling to come up with money” to combat Zika’s spread. (For details see http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-29/florida-says-zika-cases-likely-transmitted-locally-in-u-s-first.)

Zika spreads, largely unchecked by the kind of federal preventative initiatives that would effectively limit its impact. Meanwhile the CDC estimates the cost of care for each child born with Zika-caused microcephaly to be as high as $10 million over a lifetime. (See http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-true-cost-of-zika-in-the-u-s-could-be-staggering/.)

Let that sink in. The $1.1 billion Zika prevention bill voted down in the Senate earlier this month may represent the lifetime costs incurred for as few as 110 individuals born with microcephaly. Thirteen of these children are already with us (http://www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/pregnancy-outcomes.html). The ultimate economic cost of a rampant Zika epidemic makes the cost of doing something now look like pocket change.

The children themselves and their families matter more than dollars do. We do not know all the ways those children will be impacted – only time will tell. But the observation offered by ophthalmologist Camila Ventura, working in hard-hit Brazil, hints at what lies ahead: “The babies cannot stop crying” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/lifelong-care-heartaches-ahead-for-babies-born-with-zika-in-the-us/2016/07/24/2cc5e360-42d6-11e6-bc99-7d269f8719b1_story.html).

Neurological damage caused by Zika is not limited to microcephaly, as journalist Lena Sun explains, reporting from a special meeting in Atlanta convened by CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop guidelines for the care of children affected by Zika:

“In addition to microcephaly, a rare condition usually characterized by an abnormally small head and underdeveloped brain, Zika can cause neurological harm affecting vision, hearing, and muscle and bone development, research shows. The range of impairment can be vast. Some babies lack the most basic sucking reflex, which means they might never develop the ability to swallow.

“Even in babies who look ‘absolutely fine’ at birth, ongoing screening may be necessary to detect subtle changes that could signal serious problems. Abnormal movement and prolonged staring, for example, could indicate an emerging seizure disorder.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/lifelong-care-heartaches-ahead-for-babies-born-with-zika-in-the-us/2016/07/24/2cc5e360-42d6-11e6-bc99-7d269f8719b1_story.html)

Even now, there are 433 pregnant women known to be infected with Zika in the 50 states, and 422 more in US territories. The numbers continue to grow (by 77 women this past week alone). What will the totals be by the time Congress reconvenes after Labor Day? What will they be when our elected representatives finally come to terms on Zika funding?

This week in the Wall Street Journal, Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator and now an external adviser to the Skoll Global Threats Fund, theorizes that Senators failed to pass legislation because they failed to grasp the magnitude of the threat posed by Zika (http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/07/25/zika-funding-what-if-political-gridlock-isnt-why-congress-hasnt-acted/ ).

But their job is to grasp it and to address a public health emergency in the making. If a two-legged enemy had set about brain-damaging our population, with a hit list in the thousands or tens of thousands and the long-term cost of that damage mounting to many billions, Congress would have thrown some funding at defense. Where is the resolve to defend our country when the tank that carries the enemy is an insect, and the enemy itself is microscopic?

Zika is a threat that dwarfs the agendas of partisan politics and politicians’ machinations, bickering, filibustering, and addiction to obstruction. The arrival of Zika in the US is not an occasion to wage a legislative skirmish over Planned Parenthood, or to hold up critical Zika prevention funding because of one. We Americans elect our representatives not to joust endlessly but to work together to govern and to protect. Partisan shenanigans have no place when the enemy is at the gate, time is of the essence, and American lives stand to be saved or squandered.

Zika is spreading not only via mosquitoes but also by sexual contact; it is carried primarily by one type of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, but also by another, Aedes albopictus, and the two together range over half the nation. Zika is already circulating locally among Florida’s mosquitoes, and a person-to-person transmission of the virus from a father to a son in Utah remains unexplained. (See http://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2016/07/25/while-zika-spreads-in-u-s-congress-goes-on-vacation/ and http://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/07/zika-florida/493409/.)

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