WASHINGTON - The first known death from the Zika virus on U.S. territory was reported Friday as lawmakers left Washington for a weeklong recess. Neither house of Congress has approved funding to combat Zika, despite increasingly dire warnings from U.S. health officials.
It was the death of an elderly man in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, that marked an ominous milestone for the Zika virus in the United States. A Zika infection usually is not life threatening, but it may spread from a pregnant woman to her child and cause microcephaly and other severe conditions.
“This is a public health emergency. That is what our public health experts have told us,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest late last week.
The White House has requested nearly $2 billion in emergency funding to target the mosquito that carries Zika and promote the development of a vaccine. The Republican-led Congress has yet to act, saying more information is needed.
“We should at least have a plan from the administration for how the money is going to be spent,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn. “There is no plan; it is a blank check.”
Democrats note Congress approved larger sums with relative speed to fight Ebola and the H1N1 flu.
“If they will not give the experts the resources they need to combat Zika, what do they propose?” asked Democratic Senator Harry Reid. “We could ask the Zika mosquitos – the Zika-carrying mosquitos, we could ask them: 'Do not breed this year.'”
‘Do your job, Congress’
“There is a public health menace,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. “There is a crisis. We have a responsibility to protect the people from it. Do your job, Congress.”
With no new funds on the immediate horizon, the Obama administration is transferring unspent money intended for Ebola to the fight against Zika. Republicans say the maneuver buys time for a better understanding of how future funds will be spent.
“We are going to stay on top of this. We need to find a vaccine,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “About $600 million is out the door. We still need answers to questions about where it is going.”
The White House insists the transferred Ebola money is insufficient and time is of the essence.
“We cannot fund the fight against Zika a few months at a time,” Earnest said. “In order to effectively, for example, develop and test and manufacture a vaccine that can be used to protect more than 300 million American citizens, that is a multiyear effort that we are talking about. And that is an undertaking that the private sector will have to commit to.”
U.S. officials believe the Zika-carrying mosquito could spread to at least 30 U.S. states. Devastating birth defects, already reported in Brazil and elsewhere, would likely follow.