Zika is here, while Congress is on vacation

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While Congress remains on recess, the Zika virus is now spreading on U.S. soil, right where every day Americans live and enjoy their own vacations. Yet Congress continues to play politics with this public health crisis.

Emergency spending is for emergencies, and stopping the spread of Zika is a genuine emergency. Zika infection during pregnancy causes microcephaly and other significant disabilities. Babies born to mothers infected with Zika have also shown signs of other forms of brain injury and experience seizures, developmental delays, hearing and vision damage, and problems with feeding.

We at The Arc, through our network of over 650 chapters across the country, are providing services and advocating alongside people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. While valuing the lives and contributions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is central to what we do, we also recognize that people with significant developmental disabilities face profound challenges throughout their lifetimes, even with the best of services and support systems. Therefore, we firmly believe that our nation must continue to investigate the causes, reduce the incidence, and limit the consequences of intellectual and developmental disabilities through education, clinical and applied research, advocacy, and appropriate supports. When we have the opportunity to reduce the threat of lifelong challenges for our fellow citizens, we must seize it. Yet Congress has politicized the Zika virus issue and accomplished nothing, while women who became pregnant around the time that President Barack Obama made his funding request now approach their due dates.

Pregnant women are being infected. Babies are being born, and in some cases, dying quickly from the effects of their condition. And every citizen is at risk, not just women of child-bearing age or pregnant women. One frightening connection from Zika is to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an illness of the nervous system in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness, and sometimes, paralysis. The Centers for Disease Control’s  research suggests the two are strongly linked, meaning every American, whether or not you have a uterus, is at risk of significant consequences from the Zika virus.

We don’t yet know how to treat or cure Zika, but we do know how to prevent it. With the right measures, we can slow the spread of Zika until a treatment or vaccine can be developed. This means we need a “clean” funding bill – one that doesn’t include other things that Congress can’t agree on. As it stands now, the Department of Health and Human Services is now moving precious funds from cancer and diabetes research to fill in the gaps for Zika vaccine efforts.

Sadly, our nation already has a woefully inadequate system for providing services and supports for the millions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in communities across the country. People wait years, sometimes a decade, for basic supports to help them lead more independent lives. Imagine if your son or daughter, brother or sister, was left waiting for the support they need to bathe, or be fed, simply because the system didn’t have enough resources in it to help them do what many of us take for granted. Yet the major lifeline programs for people with disabilities, Medicaid and Social Security, are under constant threat in Washington.

And now we have a new threat, a virus that can be prevented. Yet Congress is ignoring it while on a seven week hiatus.

As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as being a little pregnant. You either are, or you aren’t. We either prevent the spread of Zika or we don’t. It will be on Congress’ heads either way. The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of nearly 700 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Berns is the chief executive officer of The Arc, which advocates for the rights and full participation of all children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Follow him on Twitter @TheArcExec


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