Infants born with serious defects from the Zika virus will serve as a “visible, sad” reminder of Congress’ clumsy response to the mosquito-borne threat, President Obama’s former Ebola “czar” warned Monday.
“That’s inexcusable. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” said Ron Klain, who led the White House’s response to the West African Ebola outbreak in late 2014 and early 2015.
Zika can cause serious birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. The most-recognized one is microcephaly, in which infants have abnormally small heads.
Mr. Klain, speaking at the Harvard Global Health Institute, said the U.S.’s experience with Ebola may have led to complacency this time around — while two nurses were infected by a Liberian patient in Dallas, there wasn’t a domestic outbreak. He also said lawmakers may still be smarting from that fight’s $5-billion price tag, as the U.S. took a leading role in fight the disease that killed more than 11,000 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
“I think there is some perception that maybe that was too much money, maybe we could have gotten by with less,” Mr. Klain said.
Indeed, when President Obama requested $1.9 billion to combat Zika in February, Republicans said the administration should use leftover money from Ebola instead. The administration balked at first, saying the threat in West Africa wasn’t over, but then tapped more than $500 million from the Ebola account to start the Zika fight.
The GOP ultimately offered a $1.1 billion compromise to deal with Zika before Capitol Hill’s summer recess, though Senate Democrats voted to block it, saying it wasn’t enough money and came with too many strings attached.
Mr. Klain chastised lawmakers for failing to reach an agreement, saying babies born with problems will have no party affiliation.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” he said.
As it stands, Centers for Disease Control has warned pregnant women on Friday to stay away from two neighborhoods in the Miami area where Zika appears to be spreading by mosquito bite, including a 20-block section of Miami Beach.
Officials have confirmed 36 locally acquired infections in Florida, though more than 2,000 travelers have brought the virus back with them to the U.S. mainland.
So far, the CDC says 16 babies have been born with Zika-related birth defects in continental U.S.
Mr. Klain said the ultimate number of babies born with microcephaly in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where Zika is spreading rapidly, will likely be significant, though it is “harder to know” how many may be born in the continental U.S.
Mr. Obama tapped Mr. Klain in the fall of 2014 amid domestic pressure to confront Ebola, which breached American shores with the Dallas-area diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who later died, and a doctor in New York City who sought medical treatment in New York City after returning from a volunteer mission in the hot zone of West Africa.
Mr. Klain returned to the private sector in February 2015, as the threat of Ebola wound down.
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