It’s been nearly 200 days since the White House requested emergency funding in response to the spread of the Zika virus. So far, Congress has released exactly zero dollars, while more than 10,000 cases have been confirmed in the continental United States and Puerto Rico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A handful of locally transmitted cases have popped up in Miami and Pinellas County, Florida. Next on the virus’ trajectory most likely are Louisiana, where standing water left after recent flooding creates ideal breeding territory for the mosquitos that carry Zika, and Texas.
As the virus spreads, the research on its impacts on developing fetuses is growing increasingly grim. Brain scans of Brazilian babies whose mothers contracted Zika during pregnancy showed severely compromised nervous systems—brains filled with fluid or missing significant amounts of tissue, and damage to a range of neural structures, including those that control movement, speech, emotion, learning, and memory. The CDC estimates it could cost upwards of $10 million to care for children with microcephaly over their lifetimes, though that’s not the only long-term health issue associated with the virus.
There will be considerable pressure for Congress to authorize an emergency spending package when lawmakers return to Washington in September. Without an infusion of federal dollars, development of a vaccine may slow. The Department of Health and Human Services has already shifted tens of millions away from other projects in order to fund the Zika response.
But public-health experts and some lawmakers say they need more than emergency funding: They’re pushing for a permanent fund for health emergencies. The idea is to have a ready pot of money so that officials can respond to future disease outbreaks without being subject to congressional squabbles, and without robbing from other health initiatives, as the Obama administration had to do earlier this year. A similar fund exists for natural disasters; it’s administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and this year received $7.4 billion from Congress. After this month’s devastating flooding in Louisiana, instead of waiting for politicians to haggle over an emergency aid package, FEMA was able to move quickly towards compensating residents. The agency has already approved more than $132 million for rental assistance, home repairs, and other aid.
“In past epidemics Congress has acted pretty quickly to provide the necessary funds through special appropriations, but we haven’t seen that [with Zika], and that’s pretty concerning. These are very time-sensitive threats that have to be dealt with quickly, and delays can have pretty severe consequences,” said Matthew Watson, the managing senior analyst of the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It would be an example of good government, if we were able to put something in place to ensure that responses can get dealt with quickly.”