It was January when I first heard about the Zika virus—not in my capacity as a public health advocate, but as a first-time expectant mother, via a panicked call from my parents. Cable news was reporting that a funny-sounding virus suspected to cause birth defects was spreading in Brazil and elsewhere, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a travel warning for pregnant women. As it happened, I was on my “babymoon” in the Bahamas at the time. My parents urged me to pack up and come home immediately. If I’d known then what I know now—that Zika would soon be spreading in the States, that yes, it would cause irreversible birth defects in unborn babies, and that Congress would do virtually nothing to stop it—I wouldn’t have just gotten my 7-months-pregnant self on the next plane; I would’ve started knocking on Congressional doors that day.
Today, more than 20,000 Zika cases have been reported across U.S. states and territories, of which nearly 2,000 are pregnant women. CDC has issued the first-ever domestic travel advisory, warning pregnant women not to travel to areas of Florida where local transmission of Zika is occurring. The Obama Administration has declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico, where experts predict that 25 percent of the island’s population, including pregnant women, will become infected with the virus by the end of 2016.
Yet, incredibly, Congress has still failed to act, making the financially and morally indefensible decision to deny the government’s public health experts’ (tiny) $1.9 billion request to fight this epidemic. That’s just 0.05 percent of what the federal government spends each year, or about $6 per person.
You may have seen images of babies with microcephaly. But hearing a baby with microcephaly is equally heart wrenching. They just can’t stop crying, day and night, every day. Doctors don’t know why. Are they in pain? Is it related to their birth defect?
The CDC director has warned “we are now essentially out of money” to fight the virus, and that we are “about to see a bunch of kids born with microcephaly.” He actually means, we’ll see even more kids born with microcephaly, because they’re already here. Seventeen babies have been born with Zika and its attendant complications that will cost as much as $10 million per baby over their lifetimes. Much of those costs are substantially borne by taxpayers, through programs like Medicaid and special education.
We know from experience that funding public health works. After just a handful of domestic Ebola cases surfaced, Congress leapt into action, investing $6 billion—and stopped the epidemic in its tracks at home and abroad. This time, we’ve been forced to scrape together patchwork funding, taking money from other research and public health priorities, programs that were already dangerously underfunded. Programs like, for example, mosquito monitoring.
My daughter Jackie—a happy, healthy 6-month-old born St. Patrick’s Day--was still in utero and the Zika virus was still overseas when that first emergency funding request was made to Congress. Jackie is now eating solids and days away from figuring out how to crawl. And Zika virus is here and continuing to wreak havoc.
The government’s role, first and foremost, is to defend us when we can’t defend ourselves, whether those threats are terrorists, or microbes. On the latter, our government has failed. As a public health advocate, I am discouraged and disheartened that the Zika virus hasn't been treated as the national emergency it is. As a new mother, I am outraged that Congress has spent more than seven months wrangling over a funding request that is a fraction of what we spend on our military and half of one-tenth of one percent of all the federal government spends each year.
Even if Congress approves funding, you can be assured it’ll be less than our public health generals requested, and not nearly enough to backfill what’s been cut to support those on the frontlines of the fight, or to support the casualties to date, or to address future cases of infections. Because even if we manage to contain this outbreak—and the public health community is working overtime to ensure that we do—we need to shore up our public health infrastructure to prevent the next Zika. Hopefully, next time, we’ll do so before it’s too late.