Why Congress Needs to Vote Again on Zika

Zika research needs money.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the two months since Congress last failed to do anything about Zika, scientists have been busy uncovering disturbing new details about the virus. Now back in Washington, lawmakers have again rejected a bill to fund the Zika fight -- a failure Congress must reverse before its month-long session is over.

Since June, hundreds more Americans have been infected, including 35 bitten by virus-bearing mosquitoes in Florida. Several more babies have been delivered with Zika-related birth defects in the U.S. (and many more in Puerto Rico, where U.S. officials have declared a public health emergency).

About a third of babies whose mothers are infected early in pregnancy develop problems from microcephaly to blindness, deafness, seizures and a tendency to inconsolable crying. And while Zika seems relatively benign in adults, a small number of victims suffer the nervous system disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome.  

Scientists now believe that pregnancy may greatly prolong a Zika infection by enabling the germ to travel repeatedly between the mother and the baby. And even babies who seem normal at birth, but whose mothers were infected with Zika late in pregnancy, can suffer serious developmental problems later on. Some public health experts are comparing Zika to German measles and thalidomide.

Once a fetus is infected, Zika infiltrates the stem cells that generate neurons, keeping them from growing, multiplying and differentiating. Studies indicate the possibility that Zika could invade adult brains in a similar way, targeting pockets of neural progenitor cells that are critical to learning and memory.

QuickTake Zika Virus

On the bright side, a promising vaccine containing a gene fragment similar to one in the virus is being tested in Puerto Rico. And researchers have identified two existing drugs that might protect human brain cells from Zika.

But progress on all fronts -- not just drug development but mosquito eradication, diagnostic testing and research to understand all of Zika's effects -- will be delayed without adequate federal funding. The money that the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have lifted from other parts of their budgets will run out this month.

The legislation that failed Tuesday was voted down by Democrats for good reason: It contained deal-killing partisan provisions, including one that would forbid any funding for women's health from going to Planned Parenthood.

Anything that could jeopardize passage of this legislation needs to be stripped from the bill. Zika is too serious, and too dangerous, for politics as usual.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.