In a crisis, Congress feuds while researchers run out of money

Originally Published in the Houston Chronicle by Lisa Falkenberg, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist  – 9/20/2016

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled Twitter hand-wringing on Skittles, Brangelina and Poppy Bush’s plan to vote for Hillary (shocker!) to bring you some real news.

Zika is here, it’s real and it’s scary, and on Tuesday, Congress once again punted on a decision to allocate $1.1 billion to fight it. This shouldn’t surprise anybody.

It certainly didn’t stun Katy Caldwell, executive director of Legacy Community Health Services. But, she said, “it’s still an absolute abomination. Most people still hold the door for pregnant women, but this Congress is slamming it in their face.”

It’s been seven months since the World Health Organization declared Zika a “global health emergency.”

It’s been seven months since President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in “emergency” funding to prevent, detect and respond to Zika, a virus that can cause microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with small heads and underdeveloped brains.

That money could go toward mosquito control in vulnerable Gulf Coast communities such as Houston. It could go to education campaigns to stress the three D’s: Drain water from mosquito breeding grounds. Dress in long-sleeved protective clothing. Use bug spray containing the effective chemical DEET.

It’s money that could be going toward developing a vaccine.

Here we are, with more than 18,000 cases of Zika in the U.S. and its territories. Sure, only 43 to date have been locally acquired, mosquito-borne cases in the states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, and Florida seems to be getting a handle on the outbreak.

But the CDC announced last month that the cupboard is bare; there’s no money to fight another outbreak.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post recently that the federal government has been forced to take money from the study of other diseases to finance the hunt for a vaccine. The siphoning of research dollars started with malaria and TB, then Ebola, and now includes cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental health, Fauci told the Post.

Texas gets F-

Texas faces greater risk than many states not only due to our geography but to the pigheadedness with which our “leaders” pursue health care policy. A report by the international nonprofit Population Institute recently gave the Lone Star State an F- on a scorecard grading reproductive health and rights.

The organization deemed Texas “particularly vulnerable” to the Zika threat, citing the high rates of teen pregnancy, unintended pregnancy, family planning funding cuts, and a since-overturned law that restricted abortion clinics to the point that many were forced to close, reducing capacity for years to come.

So, why the delay in federal funding to fight Zika?

Oh, the usual political spats that seem to infest every no-brainer piece of legislation in Washington: in this case, abortion and foreign domination of the internet.

For months, Democrats have blocked attempts by Republicans to exclude Planned Parenthood from those providers eligible for new contraception funding to prevent sexual transmission of the virus. That issue appears to be mostly resolved.

Now Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is trying to attach a provision that would stop the Obama administration from transferring U.S. oversight of internet domain name registrations to an international group based in Los Angeles.

There’s also a separate feud about whether any of the $1.1 billion in Zika funding should be offset by other cuts in federal spending.

Promises depreciate

Amid the squabbling, there seems to be a genuine understanding of the seriousness of the Zika threat.

In late August, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn visited Houston to take a look at some of the county’s efforts to battle the virus. He seemed confident that Congress would finally make the issue a priority.

“We’re going to get some additional funding here by the end of September,” the Texas Republican said during a news conference. “I promise.”

In Washington, such promises depreciate with each passing day.

But don’t lose heart, Texans. We have one thing going for us.

Many of our representatives in Washington are itching to get home to campaign, and the Zika funding is tied up in a stop-gap measure they need to pass to keep the government running.

So, while a global health emergency may not be enough to move Congress, the threat of the fast-approaching November elections could.