- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Zika may be even more dangerous as a political weapon than as a disease.

The mosquito-borne virus is pushing all the buttons of American politics, with Hillary Clinton’s call Tuesday to bring Congress back into session to spend more money — and tack it on to the deficit — just the latest sign. From abortion to spending to tricky calculations about birth defects and how much prevention is worth, Zika is forcing the political debate into new realms.

“I really am hoping that they will pay attention. In fact, I would very much urge the leadership of Congress to call people back for a special session and get a bill passed. Get a bill that is focused on combating Zika passed,” Mrs. Clinton said as she toured a clinic in Miami, where the first mosquito-spawned cases in the continental U.S. were confirmed late last month, spreading fear in much of the country.

Two weeks after the cases were documented, the outbreak appears to be limited to one neighborhood in Miami, where some three dozen mosquito-spawned cases have been reported. But the chances for a broader outbreak, and the heart-wrenching effects of the disease on fetuses, have elevated the issue.

Although adults with Zika often show no symptoms, the virus in pregnant women can cause spontaneous abortion, miscarriage or stillborn babies. Some babies that are born have microcephaly, which means abnormally small heads.

The infection is spread by mosquito and sexual contact.

“Zika is kind of a funny thing because it’s not Ebola. We don’t have to get into the kind of froth we got into over Ebola because it doesn’t transmit that way. It doesn’t kill people in horrible ways,” said Steven Bucci, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “The problem, though, is the people it does affect are unborn children and eventually infants, and the sort of psychological-social effect of that is pretty traumatic.”

Bioethicists say the disease is highlighting important but often-forgotten parts of medicine, such as pregnant women and their reactions to infection. That has spawned a major debate, particularly in developing countries in Latin America, about access to abortion.

In the U.S., the fight right now is chiefly about budget priorities and who cares more about battling the disease.

In Miami on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton said she was early to comprehend the threat from Zika because her daughter, Chelsea, who has a doctorate in public health and who was pregnant last year, predicted that it would be a major problem.

Mrs. Clinton said she even dispatched two of her aides to Puerto Rico, which has experienced prevalent local transmission, on a fact-finding mission to learn what could be done.

She said she didn’t want to “unduly alarm people” and urged them to read up on the disease, but she urged Congress to put up more money for the fight.

“So I’m asking the Republican leaders in the House and the Senate to call Congress back into session immediately and to pass the bipartisan funding bill that the Senate passed,” she said. “The Senate passed a bill. And unfortunately, a different bill was passed in the House, and no agreement could be reached before they went out on recess.”

In actuality, the House and Senate did reach a compromise in July. That bill is being filibustered by Senate Democrats, including Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

Republicans said Mrs. Clinton should turn her efforts to lobbying Mr. Kaine instead of attacking Republicans. They said if Democrats ended their filibuster now, the money could be approved by Congress and sent to President Obama for his signature this week.

Democrats oppose the House-Senate compromise, written by Republicans, for several reasons: They say it should be some $800 million larger, they object to the funding offsets and say it should be tacked onto the growing deficit, and they want some of the money to go to Planned Parenthood for contraceptives.

While Mrs. Clinton is pushing Zika as a political issue, her opponents have shied away. Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said Zika is an issue for local officials to handle.

Mrs. Clinton responded to Mr. Trump by saying he was doing “a grave disservice” to those fighting the disease.

Zika politics could reinforce the gender gap in this race as Mrs. Clinton tries to portray Mr. Trump as unconcerned about issues that are important to female voters.

Most Americans aren’t too worried about the virus. An ABC/Washington Post poll this week found just 12 percent who said they were “very worried” about being infected and another 23 percent who were “somewhat worried.”

Public health professionals have been sending what, to the average observer, may appear to be conflicting messages. While pleading for billions of dollars in funding, they have said the outbreak in the U.S. is likely to be limited, with cases ranging in the low hundreds.

On Tuesday, public health officials in Texas reported the first Zika-related death in the U.S. — a baby born to a Salvadoran woman who traveled here while pregnant. The baby died soon after being born at a Houston hospital.

The disease’s future is also uncertain. Some scientists predict the epidemic will last only a few years.

But to add to the confusion, Brazil, which has been among the hardest-hit by the outbreak, is questioning whether Zika alone is enough to spawn microcephaly. Nature.com reported in late July that while Zika is widespread in Brazil, Zika-linked microcephaly cases are clustered in the country’s northeast.

“We suspect that something more than Zika virus is causing the high intensity and severity of cases,” said Fatima Marinho, director of information and health analysis at Brazil’s ministry of health, according to the prestigious science magazine Nature.

Mr. Bucci at The Heritage Foundation said the most important steps the U.S. can take are the ones the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended: continue studies on a vaccine, and spray for mosquitoes in areas where the cases are found or where an outbreak is likely.

“I’m just concerned that both sides, the Democrats and the Republicans, they’re fighting over this, about adding the money, not adding the money, and in the meantime there’s a potential for mothers and children to get affected by this,” he said. “Have a clean bill, pass it, get the money to CDC, let them start doing their job.”

Some technologists hope for other solutions as well. One biotech firm is seeking government approval to try to use bacteria to infect one type of mosquito thought to be a carrier of Zika, making it sterile. Another company is hoping to test genetically modified mosquitoes that would produce offspring that couldn’t survive to adulthood.

The Food and Drug Administration last week cleared one of the hurdles for field-testing that method in Florida — though Oxitec Ltd., the company that created the mosquitoes, will need approval of Florida officials, which raises other public policy questions.

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