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Editorial: Coming up short against Zika

Aedes aegypti mosquitos commonly carry the Zika virus. | AP file photo by Andre Penner

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Many Americans continue to keep their cool about the Zika virus. For good reason. Scientists say widespread outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus in the mainland U.S. is unlikely.

But that’s no reason for Congress to play games when it comes to funding efforts to fight Zika. When the virus strikes pregnant women, it can cause deadly birth defects in their unborn babies. The most common condition is microcephaly — stunted brain development and an abnormally small head.

Last winter the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika. It got nothing. Republicans attached poison pills to bills for funding that they knew Democrats would not accept. Lawmakers, by the way, are now on a seven-week summer recess, so no funds will be forthcoming at the height of mosquito season.

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Until now Zika cases in the U.S. had appeared after travelers visited countries with outbreaks, such as Brazil or the Dominican Republic, or through sexual transmission with an infected traveler. Health officials in South Florida last week began investigating two cases that do not appear related to travel or sex. That points to mosquitoes of the Aedes aegypti species as carriers in the U.S.

Most of the U.S. is at minimal risk for Zika through mosquito bites. Shorelines hugging the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Texas, have the greatest risk in addition to already hard-hit Puerto Rico. That Caribbean island has had 4,437 diagnosed cases since December.

In May, Science Magazine reported, based on interviews with researchers, that areas in the Gulf Coast would have cases numbering in the hundreds, nothing like the outbreak in Brazil. The American lifestyle, one that embraces air conditioning over open windows without screens, cuts back exposure to mosquitoes.

Eradication efforts are underway in tropical regions in the U.S., but questions about funding remain. The big one: Will any be approved by Congress this year?

The Associated Press reported last week that Florida mosquito control officials fear they won’t make it the whole summer without federal funding. They are up against a tough enemy: Mosquitoes that carry Zika are resistant to many insecticides. They are daytime and nighttime biters. The eggs of that species can live more than a year. They are the cockroach of mosquitoes, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said of their hardiness.

There is still a lot to learn about Zika. Health officials in Utah don’t know how a caregiver contracted Zika from a patient who was stricken with it after traveling to an infected area. Transmission from a mother to a fetus is something scientists are trying to better understand. That takes money.

A while back, Frieden likened preparedness and prevention of Zika to being able to prevent an earthquake. If something could be done to prevent an earthquake, of course it would be done. Frieden has urged lawmakers to take that approach. He called Zika unprecedented and tragic, noting that 50 years had passed since a pathogen for birth defects was detected.

In adults, Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which brings on paralysis. On that front, there is more to learn, too. Scientists are in the early stages of unraveling the virus.

So far the CDC has shifted some funds from Ebola and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program for Zika. It’s absurd that one of the world’s leading health agencies in one of the world’s richest countries must put together a piecemeal budget for this. That cannot be reassuring to women of child-bearing age who live or visit Puerto Rico or the southern U.S.

Lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., in September. There had better be more urgency — and a more serious effort by Republicans — to fight Zika. They cannot blow it again.

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