Congress must respond to Zika crisis
By Debbie Wasserman Schultz
"What can I do to protect my children?" As a mother of three, it is a question I ask myself every day, and one that prompted me to run for Congress 11 years ago.
But just two weeks ago, this familiar question took on new meaning for me, when it became the most frequently asked question during a telephone town hall with my constituents on the Zika virus.
Sadly, our fears are not unfounded. Florida leads the nation in confirmed cases of the Zika virus, with more than 110 people having contracted it, and in February, Florida health officials declared a "State of Emergency." As we head into mosquito season, as well as high travel season, we have every reason to believe that the risk of Zika will rise.
We've all seen the heartbreaking images of children born with microcephaly, a rare neurological condition leading to decreased brain growth. Researchers have confirmed that a link exists between Zika and microcephaly, but they still have much to learn about this deadly disease and its containment.
President Obama has called for $1.9 billion to tackle the virus, which would be used to explore alternative mosquito-control methods, research vaccines, support local public health centers, and educate people about their risks. These dollars would also provide assistance for public health infrastructure in other countries, as nearly all of the cases we have seen in Florida and other states were contracted while traveling.
In response to the President's request, the House passed a wholly inadequate, Republican-led bill to address Zika, with Republican leadership describing the disease as "devastating," and declaring that "this legislation will make dollars available to fight the disease now."
The bill passed by House Republicans includes only one-third of the amount needed, as determined by the President and leading public health care experts. In addition, the House Republican bill provides no help for Puerto Rico, where this disease is having the largest and harshest impact. That is shameful.
This bill would also divert funds from those reserved for fighting the Ebola virus. Contrary to my Republican colleagues' belief, National Institutes of Health officials have testified that Ebola has not, in fact, been eradicated. Those same officials warned that it is dangerous to raid funding designated for one public health crisis to fight another. It is the height of irresponsibility to ignore these warnings from our nation's top public health experts.
Furthermore, although we know that developing effective vaccines and treatments requires predictable, sustained funding, the House Republican bill only provides funding through September 30th. Researchers cannot simply stop and start clinical trials at the whim of lawmakers.
Floridians are at risk, and we cannot tolerate partisan politics when there is a crisis at our doorstep.
Along with several colleagues, I've introduced legislation and amendments that that would fulfill the President's request, and knowing that their inadequate proposal has no chance of becoming law, House Republicans — unlike their Senate colleagues — still have refused to reach a bipartisan compromise.
I am proud that Florida's elected officials have risen above partisan politics, with Senator Bill Nelson championing the issue in the Senate, and Senator Marco Rubio joining in calls for greater funding.
Zika might be Florida's problem today, but it is not Florida's problem alone. We need to stop the virus here in order to protect women and children all across the United States, and we need to do so before the question becomes: "Why didn't you protect my children?"
It is my deepest hope that the rest of my colleagues in Washington can look at the bipartisan support from the Florida delegation and put public health above politics. And until that day comes, I'll continue to work to make sure the severity of this crisis is understood and our voices are not ignored.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, is chair of the Democratic National Committee