As Congress reconvenes after summer recess, all eyes should be on what it does to combat Zika. The mosquito-borne virus recently spread to areas in Florida, including Miami and Tampa Bay, and it is expected to quickly spread to other areas of the Southeast United States. As of early this week, there were more than 600 cases of Zika in Florida, with 80 of those involving pregnant women.
While Zika is not new — it was first identified in 1947 — its spread to large numbers of humans is a first. The virus is believed to cause microcephaly in developing fetuses when a pregnant woman is infected.
Congress' cavalier response to the virus is wrapped in unrelated politics. Before going on summer break, some Republicans in Congress insisted Zika funding should not include any Zika-related funding for Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico — which at the time was facing the crisis before it hit the United States.
Now that the virus has spread across Florida, government and business leaders are concerned about the economic fallout from Zika, citing the $90 billion tourism industry that drives Florida's economy.
But political gamesmanship and economic reports are for Washington and Wall Street. The real Zika threat is on Main Street. That's because the true impact of Zika is on the mothers and fathers, other caregivers and of course the direct victims of Zika — those children borne with microcephaly. It may be easier to ponder the political plays and economic blows than it is to consider the devastating reality that Zika imposes on a family, but those realities need to be understood in order to force Congress to get its act together and pass a Zika funding bill.
The impact of microcephaly was recently described by NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, who said, "Whole portions of these babies and fetuses' nervous systems are just missing, like parts of their brain stem, parts of their spinal cord. And in some cases, there are babies that are born whose brains — they seem like they're okay, but after they're born, they realize that parts of their brain or the ventricles were filled up with fluid, sort of puffed up their brains so they looked normal, but, in fact, they were severely damaged."
Stein goes on to describe the cries of Zika babies not being like those of other "normal" infants. They are more agonizing and inconsolable, he says.
As we understand the devastation to babies born with microcephaly as a result of Zika and establish prevention as a priority, those other concerns — such as the loss of jobs and related economic impacts caused by a drop in tourist dollars — should become secondary.
Ultimately, the solution to this problem is not clear. Killing the mosquito population is a start, but it is expensive, not easily done and not without consequences. Chemical pesticides threaten the air we breathe and the water we drink, not to mention consequences to our skin and lungs if directly exposed.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina last week, beekeepers found millions of dead bees in their apiaries as a result of the increased use of chemical sprays used to kill Zika-carrying mosquitoes. According to Cornell University research, bees contribute an estimated $29 billion to U.S. farm income.
In what would appear a safer way to kill mosquitoes, it has been proposed to use genetically modified mosquitoes with a synthetic protein that kills their offspring before they can emerge from larvae as adults and transmit the Zika virus. However, the "genetically modified" part has alarm bells ringing among environmental purists who are threatening lawsuits to stop modified mosquitoes from being released in a trial case proposed in the Florida Keys.
To make Zika prevention matters worse, since the virus is also a sexually transmitted disease, our ability to limit its spread is curbed by our ability to persuade humans to engage in safer sex practices. That difficulty is compounded by the fact that monogamous partners can transmit the virus without even knowing they have it.
Ultimately, the economic, physical and emotional toll of a virus such as Zika is easier to prevent than it is to treat. But try telling that to Congress.
Chris Ingram is a Tampa-based columnist, Republican political consultant, and political analyst for Bay News 9.