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Southern Lawmakers Lead Fight Over Funding To Combat Zika Virus


Congress is fighting over funding to prevent the spread of the Zika virus, which can lead to brain defects in babies. The Senate would set aside $1.1 billion for it. The House favors half that amount.

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson is one of the Republican Party's most vocal advocates for greater funding. Speaking from his Washington office, he told me a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta convinced him that Zika could be more dangerous for the U.S. than Ebola.

JOHNNNY ISAKSON: This Zika outbreak or potential outbreak could be even worse to the country from a standpoint of losing babies in the womb because the mother becomes infected by a mosquito or by sexual transmission. There are over a million cases that have been realized in Central and South America and the Caribbean. We've had 500 cases in America, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So we need to be proactive to be sure we take the lessons learned from Ebola which is education, confinement and eradication and use those things to prohibit the disease from spreading.

SHAPIRO: Would you like to see the money spent mostly in the U.S. or do you think the U.S. should invest in stopping Zika in some of the Latin American countries where it's already widespread?

ISAKSON: Well, you know, the mosquitoes and diseases know no boundaries. They don't recognize state or county or federal lines. They are oceans for that matter. And so you have to go after the disease at its origin to cure it. And the longer you wait for it to get out and the outbreak to get bigger, the more difficult that problem becomes.

SHAPIRO: And we've heard from lawmakers that they are not hearing nearly the constituent demand to act on Zika that they heard on Ebola. Why do you think that is?

ISAKSON: Well, in Ebola you had situations of people dying on the - in the middle of the road in West Africa. You had some graphically horrible pictures of the effects of Ebola. You haven't seen nearly that much yet because Zika is not outwardly as ugly and as awful as Ebola was.

But believe me, if you were the father or pregnant mother of a potential baby to be born in a mother that had Zika virus to recognize the brain deformities and head deformities that that baby could have, it's just as awful a picture. So we have every obligation that we could possibly need and every motivation we could possibly need to be sure we eradicate the disease before it spreads too far.

SHAPIRO: Now, Georgia's not along the Gulf Coast which are the states most vulnerable to Zika. Are your constituents telling you they want you to take action?

ISAKSON: We're on the Atlantic Coast and we're within 35 miles of the Gulf of Mexico on the southwestern part of the state, and the two mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus - both are indigenous to Georgia. You could not be more vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: So what do you tell your colleagues from other parts of the country that are less likely to be hit by the Zika virus? Why should they support this funding?

ISAKSON: You know, if you let a virus continue to grow and grow and grow, it will continue to spread and spread and spread. And the economic consequences of dealing with a runaway virus is far more expensive than preventing one from becoming a runaway virus.

SHAPIRO: Now, you co-sponsored along with some Democrats a new law to speed up development of vaccines and treatments for Zika. This has been a very partisan issue in the House. Why do you think that so many of your fellow Republicans have been slower to support Zika initiatives than you've been?

ISAKSON: Well, I haven't sat down to count up where the numbers are, who was supporting it and who wasn't. I think we've had a good representation in the Senate of people in support of it. There are people that favor different ways of doing so in different amounts of doing it, but I think the desire and the commitment is there in the Senate on behalf of Republicans and Democrats.

SHAPIRO: Now, you talk about desire for different amounts of funding. There is a huge gap between what the House is looking at and what the Senate is looking at. What do you think is going to come out of a conference when these two sides come together?

ISAKSON: Well, whatever's done is going to be a down payment, and hopefully it'll be less of a payment than we'd have to make if we let it go much further. But it'll be a down payment on our commitment to see to it we wipe out the virus before it spreads.

SHAPIRO: Are you worried about how quickly the money will come through?

ISAKSON: No because we're making progress every day, and we're trying to see to it we get it done in time.

SHAPIRO: Johnny Isakson, Republican senator from Georgia, thank you for joining us.

ISAKSON: Thank you very much. You have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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