In February, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion in emergency aid to combat Zika, but Congress has yet to approve any funds. In May, the Senate put forth a bill to provide $1.1 billion, but House Republicans rejected the measure, instead proposing the government provide $622 million, most of which would be redirected from money set aside to fight Ebola and other infectious diseases. A week later, Congress broke for a 10-day recess without coming to a decision. Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the National Press Club that he was shocked by the delay: “We have a narrow window of opportunity to scale up effective Zika-prevention measures, and that window of opportunity is closing.”
Panicking that his state could soon face “disaster” as mosquito season approached, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, wrote a letter to President Obama, beseeching him to make federal funds available. “Congress has failed to act, and now they are on vacation,” he said.
In 2014, Congress agreed to spend $5.4 billion on the Ebola epidemic, and Frieden, who notes the CDC is still trying to stamp out Ebola in West Africa, said he “hopes that Congress will do the right thing with Zika.” But unlike Ebola, which causes gruesome symptoms often followed by death, Zika is somewhat of a stealth virus. Most people infected will have no symptoms. Some may come down with conjunctivitis or break out in a skin rash, or experience muscle or joint pain or run a fever. Within a week or so, all of the symptoms, if they even emerged, are gone. In a certain number of cases, however, this may only be the beginning. Women who are infected with Zika during pregnancy run the risk of passing the virus to the fetus, which may then develop birth defects, the worst being microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with undersize brains and heads. Depending on the severity, children with microcephaly may be stillborn or die shortly after birth, and those who live longer may require extensive, and expensive, medical care – the CDC estimates that it could cost $10 million to care for one microcephalic child. Zika, which seems to be particularly drawn to neurological tissue, may also cause swelling of the brain or spinal cord in adults, and has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune neurological condition that can cause severe, if usually temporary, paralysis.
But the scariest aspect of Zika is how little scientists actually know about it. “There’s a surprise a day with this virus,” says Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC’s division of vector-borne diseases, which are illnesses spread by arthropods like mosquitoes and ticks. Zika is spread by the Aëdes aegypti, the same mosquito that carries dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya. But Zika, notes Petersen, is the first virus since the rubella outbreak of the 1960s to cause major birth defects. Microcephaly may be just one of many complications. Researchers are also preparing for the possibility that Zika will cause a host of developmental problems that are, so far, unknown, and may take months or years to emerge. “That’s really the untold story of this: We don’t know the whole spectrum,” says Petersen. “Are children that are born that look ‘normal’ really normal? That’s going to take time, and some very sophisticated testing, to figure out.”