As we write, armies of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are preparing to sweep north, across the U.S. and likely into Illinois, as the weather turns warmer. These mosquitoes transmit the Zika virus — confirmed in April as the cause of a rare human birth defect called microcephaly and other severe fetal abnormalities.
How scary is this? Very.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the scale and severity of prenatal damage by the Zika virus are far worse than scientists expected. "Scans, imaging and autopsies show that Zika eats away at the fetal brain," the paper reports. "It shrinks or destroys lobes that control thought, vision and other basic functions. It prevents part of the brain not yet formed from developing."
Another scary thought: Some Zika-caused defects may not be apparent until months or years later because babies may look normal when born, experts said last weekend at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.
Early this year, the World Health Organization declared a global emergency. Doctors, researchers and public health experts in the U.S. and across the globe are scrambling to understand the virus, develop diagnostic tests and a vaccine, and contain the imminent damage.
President Barack Obama asked Congress to set aside $1.9 billion to better respond to the virus abroad and prepare for it here. He said the money was necessary to halt the spread of the disease and "protect the health and safety of Americans."
That was in February.
The response? So far, nothing.
Full, screeching halt.
Congress has refused to approve the request. Some Republican leaders have carped that the set-aside is a "blank check" or a "slush fund." Instead of new funding, they want the administration to use part of the $5 billion earmarked in 2014 to battle Ebola in Africa. The administration has already transferred almost $600 million of unused Ebola funds, the Associated Press reports. But officials say they need more money to control mosquitoes and develop a vaccine.
Some Republicans also argue that they don't want to spend another dime to add to the deficit, but it's more likely they don't want to give Obama anything he wants, or anything he can call a victory, in his final months in office.
Senate negotiators recently said they were close to a deal to provide at least $1.1 billion in emergency financing to battle the rapidly spreading virus. But House Republicans were still stalling. Maybe they'll be convinced when the mosquitoes start biting on the Potomac, when mothers and babies start suffering.
No, there's no chance that federal efforts will actually stop the virus. No matter how much funding they have, public health officials can't wipe out every mosquito or prevent every case of Zika. But an infusion of federal cash can:
• Boost national readiness and help organize SWAT teams in states with ongoing Zika problems.
• Enhance mosquito eradication and surveillance, particularly in at-risk areas, to reduce the number of cases.
• Educate Americans, particularly pregnant women, on how to avoid the virus.
• Expand the Zika vaccine effort.
That's all part of Obama's $1.9 billion ask. All of it is vital to limit the damage and repel the invaders this summer and beyond. One member of Congress who shares our urgency is Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. He says officials in his mosquito-prone state are "freaked out." Last week, he took to the Senate floor to urge his colleagues to "fully and immediately" fund federal efforts:
"This is a real threat, and it is not just the tropical states. We are going to face the Zika problem in this country this summer and fall. My advice to my colleagues is we're going to deal with this, and I hope we deal with it at the front end, because not only is it better for our people, it's better for you. You're going to have to explain to people why it is that we sat around for weeks and did nothing on something of this magnitude."
Listen to Rubio, lawmakers. Or spend a long, hot summer explaining why you did nothing when you could have been helping mothers and children avoid Zika.
And a long, hot fall.