Researchers slowly honing in on risk of Zika birth defect

Three-month-old Esther Kamilly has her head measured by Brazilian and U.S. health workers from the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, as part of a study on the Zika virus and the birth defect microcephaly. 

Andre Penner -- AP

Mosquitoes are bad enough in Wisconsin without having to worry about bites causing terrible birth defects.

Congress should quickly grant the Centers for Disease Control’s request for funding to fight the Zika virus.

Health officials on Friday confirmed a second Wisconsin woman — this time a resident of Dane County — has contracted the illness. Both women had traveled to Latin America, where the virus is concentrated.

Wisconsin can’t pretend it’s not at risk. Though no mosquitoes here carry the virus — yet — Zika also can be transmitted by sexual contact.

Congress needs to act, not play political games with public health.

“In a public health emergency, speed is critical,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, told the National Press Club on Thursday. “A day, a week, a month can make all of the difference.”

The U.S. Senate, with bipartisan support, just approved $1.1 billion for efforts to exterminate mosquitoes that carry the virus, testing and vaccine research. That’s down from the president’s request of $1.9 billion but more than the $622 million the House wants to spend.

Congress should be able to hammer out a reasonable agreement.

It’s been three long months since President Barack Obama requested the money. All the while, the CDC has issued increasingly urgent warnings about the need to act quickly to prevent an outbreak in the United States.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and his fellow Republicans who control the House want to offset the cost of Zika funding with cuts in other spending. That’s a fine idea — but not if it delays action.

This isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a partisan issue. Unfortunately, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson pulled Obamacare into the debate. Republicans have been unrealistically trying to repeal the president’s signature health care law for years. Johnson, R-Oshkosh, voted against bipartisan Zika funding in the Senate, saying he wanted to take dollars for battling the virus from an Obamacare prevention plan instead.

Other Republicans, including former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio from the swampy state of Florida, backed Obama’s full $1.9 billion request. Florida and other states closest to Latin America face higher risk of exposure than the rest of the nation.

“This is a public health emergency that cannot wait for this extended debate on this issue,” Rubio said.

He’s right.

The longer Congress waits to steer money to the CDC, the more likely the virus will spread — costing more money to contain than it would now to prevent. That point should resonate with Johnson and other funding sticklers.

Hundreds of pregnant women in the United States and its territories have tested positive for Zika. All of them contracted the illness while traveling, but there’s no guarantee that pattern will continue. About 10 cases have resulted from sexual transmission.

The CDC just warned it’s having to borrow from funds intended for flu, hurricane relief and other emergencies to stay after Zika. The CDC also worries it may have to delay testing for a vaccine if Congress can’t negotiate adequate funding soon.

America shouldn’t panic. At the same time, America shouldn’t put off prudent effort and expense to ensure the public is safe.

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