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Zika is a public health emergency; we need to work together to confront this head on

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Americans are deeply concerned about the Zika virus. Now that mosquitos in the continental United States are actively spreading the virus, we are going to see more cases of Zika infection unless we quickly take action to combat this virus and the mosquitos that spread it.

Based on what we know about the virus so far, pregnant women and their babies are at the greatest risk from the devastating impacts of Zika. Even a baby who is exposed to the virus while in utero, but who is not born with birth defects, may still be impacted by developmental problems later in life.

{mosads}The unique threat Zika poses requires us to act.  Nothing is more important than the health of our children, and now is the time for Congressional Democrats to work with Republicans to confront the Zika virus head on.

Combatting Zika is a battle that must be waged on many fronts. To reduce the risk that this virus poses to pregnant women and their babies, we need to abate and control the population of infected mosquitoes, facilitate the discovery and development of new Zika medicines, and support families who have been affected.

By a bipartisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in June to dedicate $1.1 billion additional dollars to Zika aid.  Unfortunately, this bill remains stalled in the Senate because some say $1.1 billion is not enough. 

Here are the facts. The dollars in the Zika aid bill would support vaccine development, mosquito control, and support services in areas that have been hard hit by this virus.  And, on top of a surge in funding to fight Zika, this bill would increase funding for the National Institutes of Health so that we are better prepared to combat emerging infectious diseases.  The Zika aid bill – had it been passed by the Senate and signed by the President over two months ago – would now be helping protect babies from this virus’ heartbreaking complications.

The urgency to act could not be greater.  The Obama administration has declared the Zika virus to be a public health emergency in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.  This declaration allows the federal government to use public health emergency response tools that I fought in Congress to strengthen.  The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, a law I authored with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), makes sure that we have the ability to respond quickly and efficiently to public health emergencies like Zika.

I have also introduced the Strengthening Mosquito Abatement for Safety and Health, or SMASH, Act in the Senate with Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).  The bipartisan SMASH Act would protect North Carolinians by assisting states and localities with their mosquito surveillance and control programs.  As we are learning with the Zika virus, mosquitos can pose very serious health threats by spreading disease, and we must be prepared to combat these threats at their source.

Americans are rightfully fed up with Washington, which unlike families and their household budgets, has little accountability for the dollars it spends.  Passing the Zika aid bill now is imperative; but more funding isn’t everything.  We cannot let up. We must make sure that promising Zika medicines become a reality and that we continue to innovate so that we are ready for the next curve ball Mother Nature throws at us.

Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, has said that a vaccine for the Zika virus could be available by as early as 2018. Congress should remove barriers to innovation at the National Institutes of Health to help make this prediction a reality. Growing government is not going to solve this problem, but smarter government can be an ally to the researchers, scientists and innovators who are on the front lines every day, searching for cures.

It would be a shame for the brokenness of Washington to make an already tragic situation with Zika worse. North Carolinians are counting on Congress to prove that we can tackle tough problems by working together, keep our children and families safe, and act responsibly with the finite resources we have.  You can count on me to continue working to do so.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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