Zika: Congressional gridlock may hobble public health efforts

Zika research

Despite warnings for months that the United States must prepare for a potential outbreak of the Zika virus, officials have made little progress, according to a commentary published in JAMA the same day officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted that the virus was "scarier than we initially thought."

Congressional inaction has left U.S. population centers susceptible to a Zika outbreak, write Lawrence O. Gostin of Georgetown University and James G. Hodge Jr. of Arizona State University. The commentary lambastes congressional Republicans' refusal to allocate the $1.6 billion President Barack Obama's administration requested to fight its spread, telling the White House to instead divert unused Ebola funds.

Gostin and Hodge warn the diversion ignores the fact that the money was earmarked to continue rebuilding public health infrastructure in West Africa. "Yet just when new cases are arising in West Africa, the United States is welching on its commitment to fight Ebola. It is morally wrong and short sighted for Congress to force the President's hand," Gostin says  in an announcement. "In order to protect the homeland from Zika, he has had to shortchange some of the world's poorest countries."

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) argued the White House has been overly cagey as to how the money will be spent, according to the Associated Press. While Congressional leaders conceded at least some of the additional funding may be necessary, they said the remaining Ebola funds should be sufficient until the fall.

However, it's also important that health officials keep the public, many of whom are misinformed about Zika, from panicking about the threat, argues a USA Today column. Left unchecked, such panics can have a human cost, write Yale's Merceditas Villanueva, an associate professor of medicine, and Joan Cook, an associate professor of psychiatry, such as rampant homophobia during the AIDS crisis and the forcible quarantine of healthcare workers displaying no symptoms of the Ebola virus.

"By developing effective behavioral and health education strategies including targeted community outreach to affected populations, as healthcare professionals, we can likely limit the associated epidemic of fear and its consequences regardless of the infectious disease," they write.

To learn more:
- read the commentary
- check out the announcement
- here's the USA Today column