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Playing politics with our health

A Miami-Dade County mosquito control worker sprays around

A Miami-Dade County mosquito control worker sprays around a school in the Wynwood area of Miami on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. Credit: AP

How do you react when something threatens your family?

You do something, right?

You figure out the problem, come up with a solution and act.

Unless you’re Congress.

Then you screen the problem through your party’s ideological filter, propose something you know the other side won’t accept because of its ideological filter, watch its members reject it, then howl that the other side is playing politics on a matter of grave importance to the American people. While the other side does the exact same thing.

And nothing gets done.

It stinks. And it’s a large part of why 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, according to a Gallup Poll last month.

You could pick any number of issues for which this is true, from gun control to enhanced airport security to the dozen or so spending bills needed to keep the federal government functioning. It’s also true about Zika.

It is impossible to argue that the mosquito-borne virus is not a threat to Congress’ family, the American public. The virus, which typically has at worst only mild flu-like symptoms, is a real danger for pregnant women because it can cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.

The number of U.S. cases is growing, approaching 2,000, including nearly 500 pregnant women and 13 babies delivered with microcephaly. In Puerto Rico, where the virus is raging, the 5,500 confirmed infections and nearly 700 pregnant women with Zika are considered severe undercounts.

And yet, Congress went home in mid-July for summer recess having done nothing to combat it.

They weren’t debating the roles of government vs. the private sector in developing a vaccine or responding to public health emergencies, or quibbling over costs, or questioning whether the science warranted federal intervention. They were playing politics.

Depending on your viewpoint:

Senate Democrats [irresponsibly blocked, or, could not in good conscience pass] a $1.1 billion emergency spending measure because Republicans [reasonably insisted, or, unfairly demanded] that funding for maternal care and contraception be allocated to public health departments and the like and not to Planned Parenthood, an [evil baby-killing organization that sells aborted fetal tissue for profit, or, important provider of family planning services to women who desperately need them].

And cue the blame.

What’s happened since, with Zika-bearing mosquitoes reaching our shores as predicted, has only added to the questions and the urgency for answers and action. Now, let’s be clear. Even if Congress had acted, it’s not as if we’d have a vaccine today. That work is progressing nicely; research takes time, but it requires steady and reliable funding.

The money would have helped immediately with educating people on how to reduce their risk, offering more testing, and helping local governments reduce mosquito populations. And family planning. With more than a dozen people in one Miami neighborhood getting Zika from mosquito bites there, the problem is not merely an academic concern.

The second phase of clinical trials on a vaccine will be delayed without more funding, according to the National Institutes of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its Zika funds will be gone by Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

Congress returns after Labor Day, but some Democrats want to come back now to deal with Zika. That would be wise — if someone is willing to give.

But it’s an election year, and no one seems ready to budge.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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