The fight against Zika grows more urgent

The more doctors learn about the Zika virus, the more dangerous it appears. Is it too much to hope that this research will prod the U.S. Congress to take action?

Congressional action on any issue has been hard to come by lately. In the case of Zika, however, it’s worth examining what science says about its potential for harm.

Zika’s apparent link with microcephaly – a condition in which a baby’s brain fails to properly develop – is stronger than thought. Meanwhile, a study of pregnant women in Rio de Janeiro who tested positive for the virus found an extraordinary number of “grave outcomes,” including stillbirth, stunted growth (even without microcephaly), and eye and brain lesions. In adults, Zika infection can trigger Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an immune disorder that can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis.

Scientists are urgently trying to figure out exactly how Zika inflicts this damage. A fuller understanding of the disease is needed before doctors can stop Zika’s worst effects. At the same time, an intensive effort to speed up vaccine creation and mosquito eradication is essential.

So it is unfortunate that Congress has so far rejected President Barack Obama’s request for $1.8 billion in funding for Zika response. Leaders of the House Appropriations Committee have said the administration should first use up $1.4 billion in unspent money from the U.S.’s emergency Ebola response. But that money is still needed to rebuild the health systems of the West African countries hit hardest by Ebola, and to make sure that the devastating disease is fully defeated.

What’s more, the Ebola money earmarked for vaccine development has mostly been spent. If new money isn’t provided, the government’s efforts to create a Zika vaccine could be delayed. Even with full funding, this effort isn’t expected to reach the first phase of clinical trials until the fall.

This is the wrong time for Congress to sit on its hands. In the coming months, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries Zika, will become active again in southern states. And there’s some indication that Culex mosquitoes, far more common in the U.S., might also be capable of carrying the germ.

Many countries and agencies are cooperating to wage a counterattack against Zika. But the U.S. is in a position – geographically, scientifically and financially – to play a leading role.