The World Health Organization has declared the most recent outbreak of the virus a global health emergency. In Haiti, every week 30 more people are diagnosed with Zika. In Brazil, Zika has been diagnosed in tens of thousands of people and left more than 1,500 babies with microcephaly—a birth defect that causes major developmental delays, seizures, hearing and vision loss, and other issues.
According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 1,200 people, including 320 pregnant women, are currently infected with the virus in the U.S. In total almost 600 pregnant women in the U.S. and territories are living with Zika. The highest numbers of infections inside the U.S. have been reported in Florida, New York, and Texas.
In addition to being mosquito-borne, Zika virus can be sexually transmitted. Many pregnant women who become infected with Zika wish to end their pregnancies out of fear of their fetuses developing microcephaly. For these reasons, contraception and safe abortion must be at the forefront of any prevention and treatment efforts.
Republicans, however, are nowhere near approving a bill sufficient for dealing with this public health crisis. The White House and Democrats in Congress have continuously requested $1.9 billion to fund mosquito control and increased access to contraception. Republicans have responded with the same ideological hobby horses they’ve pursued for years: attacks on family planning providers. Not only did the Zika funding bill Republicans pushed through the House contain inadequate funding, it barred Planned Parenthood clinics and other community health providers from receiving any aid to expand contraceptive access in the United States and refused to fund the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to do so in Latin America.
GOP leaders followed these actions up by pushing annual funding bills that will hamstring reproductive health programs and contraceptive access at home and abroad. They call for slashing aid for global family planning by fully 25 percent, reinstating the odious Global Gag Rule and barring aid to UNFPA.
At home, the GOP is working hard to remove funding for family planning programs such as Title X, which helps low-income American women. Just last week they proposed ending the 45-year-old program, in addition to eliminating $108 million in teen pregnancy prevention grants.
Faced with Zika, we should be pouring money into family planning and contraception—not taking it away.
To soften the political blowback, Republicans agreed to redirect $589 million from Ebola funds to fight Zika, seemingly forgetting that Ebola is still a threat. It could re-emerge if we don’t continue investing in treatment and prevention services. Transferring funds from one disease to another is not a solution—it’s a copout.
In addition, the amount of money Republicans are willing to invest is simply not enough. The reality is that we still don’t know much about Zika, and in order to tackle the virus, we need to understand it first. Experts say birth defects caused by Zika may just be the “tip of the iceberg.” There is an urgent need for research on prevention and long-term effects. We also need updated surveillance, access to contraceptives, better reproductive health services, and widespread and comprehensive sex education.
Of course, this is not the first time Republicans have demonstrated their party’s aversion to helping vulnerable people. This is the same party that tried to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and slaps restrictions on safe abortion care around the country. It is time for Republicans to stop playing games with women’s health and lives.
Photo credit © 2001 Alex Zusman, Courtesy of Photoshare