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Policy Update: Fighting Zika

Zika was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda, but it has recently spread through South and Central America. The virus itself is passed primarily through mosquito bites, although other forms of transmission have been seen. Symptoms of the virus are mild illness, including fever, rash, joint pain, and red eye. It has been linked to serious birth defects, most noticeably microcephaly in babies of mothers who were infected with the virus while pregnant, and unfortunately, there is currently no cure.

Much is still unknown about the disease, but we do know that so far, eight Arkansans have been infected while traveling. Fortunately, there have been no local infections, however as we move through the summer months, Zika is becoming an increasing threat.

I have met personally with Dr. Tom Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to discuss the response to Zika. The CDC is currently developing tests to diagnose the virus, conducting studies to learn more about the link between Zika and birth defects, providing guidance to Americans traveling to regions with current outbreaks, and monitoring the spread of the virus. Additionally, the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center was activated on January 22, 2016, to collaborate with local, national, and international response partners regarding the outbreak.

Congress has a role to play in the response, too. In February, the Obama Administration submitted an emergency discretionary appropriations request for nearly $1.9 billion in supplemental funding for Zika epidemic. Because it was requested as emergency funding, these dollars would not be subject to Budget Control Act of 2011 spending limits.

Instead of busting budget caps, at our urging, the CDC is currently funding its response to Zika with redirected Ebola dollars. To supplement these funds, the House passed the Zika Response Appropriations Act (H.R. 5243), a stand-alone supplemental appropriations bill which would provide an additional $622.1 million for this fiscal year’s response to Zika, in May. In June, the House doubled down by passing the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Zika Response Appropriations Act final Conference Report (H.R. 2577), which would not only provide fiscal year 2017 funding to house, train, and equip military personnel, provide housing and services to military families, help maintain base infrastructure, and provide for veterans’ benefits and programs, but the bill also furnished $1.1 billion for domestic and international efforts to fight Zika.

Unfortunately, because Senate Democrats chose to put politics over solutions, that’s where House progress stopped. When taken to the Senate Floor for a vote, Democrats balked. With each passing day, more and more women and their unborn children are at risk, and I believe it is unacceptable that politics should stop us from providing for a solution. I hope Senate Democrats recognize this sooner rather than later.

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