Yet when members of Congress embarked on a seven-week recess last week, they failed to resolve the question of whether to approve money to combat Zika.
“Without ensuring there are sufficient resources available for research, prevention, control, and treatment of illnesses associated with the Zika virus, the United States will be ill equipped to deploy the kind of public-health response needed to keep our citizens safe and healthy—especially since the spread of mosquito-borne illness is accelerated during the summer months,” the American Medical Association said in a statement on Thursday.
That’s part of why Congress’s failure to act has stunned even those who track the legislative body closest. “Nobody should be surprised when the present House of Representatives, dominated by penurious reactionaries, produces a stingy response to a danger that calls for compassionate largess,” The New York Times’ editorial board wrote in May, “But for sheer fecklessness it’s hard to top the House’s response ... to the Zika virus.”
One Republican who has pushed for Zika funding is Marco Rubio, the Florida senator whose state—along with Texas—is considered to be among the highest risk regions in the U.S. for an outbreak of the virus.
“It is the obligation of the federal government to keep our people safe,” Rubio said in remarks on the Senate floor back in April. “There is no such thing as a Republican position on Zika or Democrat position on Zika because these mosquitoes bite everyone.”
As of last week, the CDC reported 1,305 cases of Zika in the United States, but no local cases of transmission—meaning mosquitoes aren’t known to be spreading the virus in the United States at this point. But even if the United States avoids a serious outbreak this summer, the fight over Zika funding reveals a much larger problem with the way Congress thinks about the role of the United States in public health emergencies.
Even if the United States didn’t have a moral obligation to use its substantial resources and global standing to fight diseases like Zika, several public-health officials told me, protecting U.S. citizens requires looking beyond the country’s borders.
“Knowing this is a disease transmitted by mosquitoes and by humans means we should be investigating it as if we’re part of the world, and not shielded from it,” said Paul Farmer, the physician and humanitarian.
An isolationist attitude toward public health may seem to some members of Congress like a way to save money, but it’s an approach that doesn’t actually reflect how diseases spread. A failure to act globally, Farmer says, puts everyone at risk.
“It’s very frustrating,” he added. “If it weren’t for Bill and Melinda Gates, I’m not sure we’d be approaching polio eradication. Why should very wealthy individuals have to bear that burden?”