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Editorial: Fight Zika as hard as we fought Ebola

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito transmits the Zika virus. Health experts warn that Puerto Rico likely will have a massive outbreak of Zika by year's end. The virus has been linked to birth defects. Photo by Luis Robayo, Getty Images.

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By and large Americans have taken the right approach to the Zika virus. People aren’t freaking out the way many did when Ebola sickened three Americans and a foreigner in the U.S. in 2014.

But having learned from that unsettling experience, Congress should address Zika with the same urgency it showed for Ebola. Zika is spreading quickly in Puerto Rico and cases are popping up on our mainland as Americans travel to infected countries. The mosquito-borne virus itself isn’t usually deadly for adults, but evidence continues to grow stronger that it causes serious, sometimes deadly, birth defects in babies born to mothers infected during pregnancy.

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The Obama administration has asked Congress for $1.8 billion to fight Zika. Republicans are balking, saying more than $2 billion unspent for Ebola can be used to fight Zika. But health officials have allocated those funds for vaccine studies and continued monitoring in Africa of Ebola, which hasn’t been eradicated. Meantime, scientists have diverted time and money from other important medical work to try to contain Zika.

The U.S. leads the world in medical solutions, cures and disease eradications. Medical professionals, say top experts, need money now to attack Zika aggressively.

“If we don’t get the money that the president asked for, it’s going to slow down a number of things, not just vaccine, but vaccine is the most concrete one that will be slowed down,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, believes that a link between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which brings on paralysis, in adults soon will be proved. More alarming are risks to pregnant women. Infection during pregnancy could lead to microcephaly —stunted brain development and abnormally small head — or other serious birth defects in babies. Cases of birth defects have overwhelmed doctors in Brazil, where there is an outbreak.

By year’s end, Frieden said, there could be hundreds of thousands of Zika infections in Puerto Rico and thousands of infected pregnant women.

Some scientists believe Brazil’s outbreak originated with fans from infected countries visiting for the 2014 World Cup. Others believe a canoe race in Rio that brought teams from Polynesian islands hit hard by Zika three years ago could be an underlying cause.

Brazil will be host to this year’s Olympics, raising the possibility of infected travelers returning to the U.S. and possibly spreading it to their partners through sexual contact.

As we learned from the Ebola scare, we don’t handle this stuff well when it makes it to our shores, or seems to be too close — calling for bans from visitors from whole continents, for example. Clearly the lesson of Ebola is to fight these things at their source. We have learned.

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