It’s been more than six months since President Obama called on Congress to pass a $1.9 billion emergency Zika funding bill, but they have yet to appropriate any money towards the public health epidemic that has now infected at least 21,000 individuals in the US and its territories, 1,800 of whom are pregnant.
The Senate is expected to vote today on a temporary government funding measure that allocates $1.1 billion to Zika research and prevention initiatives. Negotiators have reportedly reached an initial deal on Zika funding—one that would allow Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico, an epicenter of the Zika epidemic, to access Zika funding. But the deal is not final until the vote, and lawmakers are still wrangling over the provisions of the continuing resolution, including funding for the Flint water crisis, additional emergency funding for flood-afflicted Louisiana, and issues surrounding the Export-Import Bank.
The continuing resolution must pass before the end of the month to keep the government running and prevent a shutdown before the November election.
Congress wasted weeks trying to pass a Zika response bill that would cut funding for Planned Parenthood, despite public health experts insisting that family planning was the key tool for combating the Zika virus. The Zika virus, which can be sexually transmitted, has led to severe neurological birth defects in infants born to Zika-infected mothers.
In August, in the absence of a Zika funding deal, President Obama reallocated funds from the Department of Health and Human Services to address the public health crisis, but those funds are expected to run out at the end of this month. The National Institute of Health has said they will be unable to move forward with clinical trials without funding by October 1.
Meanwhile, women in Florida have been anxiously awaiting the results of their Zika tests, some for over five weeks, due to the extensive backlog of unprocessed paperwork.
“It’s a negative impact because if someone’s early first trimester or second trimester and we delay disclosure because we don’t have a result by two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks – that may be long enough for them to be out of the window of being able to terminate that pregnancy,” said University of Miami and Jackson Health System obstetrician Dr. Christine Curry. In Florida, abortion after 24 weeks is restricted.
Restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion in Florida also impedes access to abortion for low-income women in the state. Women can only obtain public funding for abortion in limited cases, making Zika prevention critically important.
The requested funding is a tiny fraction of the national budget, and the cost to taxpayers must be weighed against the cost of a full-blown Zika public health epidemic. Zika is already present in every state except Alaska, and Zika infected mosquitoes are expected to appear in other areas of the country.
The Feminist Majority Foundation has asked individuals to contact their Representative and Senators to urge them to protect the health of women and their babies by passing Zika funding today.