President Obama has a plan to protect American from the Zika virus, “a public health emergency” that continues to spread worldwide, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, wants to approve the White House’s “priorities” before moving forward on it.
President Obama said Monday he plans to ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the illness, which takes the greatest toll on developing babies. McConnell is first requesting the Administration brief the Senate on their plan, Tuesday. McConnell had this to say about it on his website:
“Here are two key areas where we’ll want to get a better understanding at the briefing. 1. What preparations are being made to protect Americans? 2. What are the Administration’s funding priorities given limited federal resources?”
The virus is not fatal and most who get it experience either mild or no symptoms, but it can be devastating to developing fetuses, causing neurological defects like babies born with abnormally small heads. While experts don’t expect large outbreaks in the continental U.S., the virus is spreading rapidly through Latin America and pregnant Americans are urged to avoid travel to affected areas.
“The good news is this is not like Ebola,” said President Obama. “People don’t die of Zika. A lot of people get it and don’t even know that they have it. What we now know, though, is that there appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women or women who are thinking about getting pregnant.”
President Obama made it clear that the emergency funding would be used on a variety of fronts to help battle the mosquito-borne illness, including mosquito control, vaccine research, education, and improving health care for low-income pregnant women.
The Gulf Coast region of the U.S. is especially vulnerable to mosquito borne illnesses like Zika, explained Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Balyor College of Medicine in Houston, and lower income residents are often the hardest hit because they can’t afford air-conditioning or window screens.
“We’re also going to need to conduct environmental clean up to help wipe out mosquito breeding areas, while providing quality house screens to pregnant women who live in poverty,” Hotez said.
The funding would also be used to provide aid to countries where the Zika virus is spreading fastest and to develop a vaccine.
McConnel’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Don Stewart, said Congress would consider the emergency funding request in context of a larger budget.
“And given limited federal resources, we expect the Administration will brief Congress on their funding priorities at the briefing.”
Although McConnell is already questioning the President’s emergency money request, other Republicans are pushing to give the federal government more flexibility when it comes to funding the fight against Zika. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, pitched legislation last week that that would allow Congress to use around $1.2 billion in unused money allocated to fight the Ebola outbreak, for Zika virus efforts.
Despite support from within the GOP, McConnell is determined to make the Obama Administration jump through hoops with questions of “priorities,” while the most vulnerable populations in the U.S., including poor, pregnant women, are left waiting for additional help.
If the emergency funding isn’t approved, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director said he’d have to look at funneling money from other health programs.