Dengue virus. Colonial Texans called it break-bone fever because of the agonizing pain it caused. Infection with the dengue virus is not just a bad case of the flu, though it starts with flu-like symptoms.
With dengue, you cannot work; you cannot go to school. One type, dengue shock fever, can be fatal. Spread by mosquitoes, the disease was common in Texas in the early 1900s until effective mosquito control and disease prevention measures eliminated it from the United States. Now itâ€™s back, and the virus tells us a lot about partisan politics and the negative effects of budget cuts known as sequestration.
Before 2005 cases of dengue in the U.S. were rare. Most were picked up by travelers to other countries. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is responsible for monitoring the virus and the mosquitoes that carry it. The CDC budget in 2005 was $7.5 billion.
Among other things, this allowed for disease and mosquito surveillance, reporting of infected individuals, and research into diagnostic testing and effective control measures. The virus remained low in south Texas for nearly six years, even as the CDC budget was cut or held flat.
In 2011 Congress appointed a “super committeeâ€ to bring together Republicans and Democrats to work out how to divide up the limited resources in the U.S. budget. Both sides agreed on the need to control spending and each had priorities for funding.
In a reasonable world the men and women of Congress would work out differences and make the hard choices that would ensure vital functions of the government would continue to be effective. But that didnâ€™t happen â€“ so instead of carefully thought-out adjustments to our budget we got “sequestration,â€ across-the-board cuts that equally affected military readiness programs, payments to doctors taking care of rural Texans, and scientists trying to find a way to stop the spread of break-bone fever.
For us in the border area it certainly didnâ€™t seem reasonable to cut the CDC budget just when dengue was crossing over from Mexico, but sequestration isnâ€™t about being reasonable â€“ just the opposite. And since the cuts applied to every part of the government, the National Institutes of Health, which provides grants to scientists throughout Texas searching for a vaccine or medicines to alleviate the suffering from the virus, also saw budget cuts for several years in a row.
So now the virus is back. Already dozens have been infected in the last year, most along the border areas and within the 23rd District of Texas. Controlling government spending is laudable, but it must be done objectively without regard to re-election prospects or party politics.
That is why I voted for the recent budget appropriations bill â€“ a rare bipartisan effort that for the most part did away with the damaging effects of sequestration on the CDC, at least for one year. Unfortunately, it still left the CDC budget one billion dollars under the 2005 level. And sequestration will take effect again next year, and for a decade to come if we donâ€™t make reasonable choices about the budget. Scientists tell me other diseases are spreading into Texas â€“ chickagunga virus, West Nile virus, and livestock diseases that can decimate an entire Texas industry.
I donâ€™t know if viruses can “likeâ€ anything, but if they can, dengue must be very happy with the partisan politics now in Washington. Break-bone fever may never get as far north as Washington, D.C., but it is killing Texans here, today. So when you hear a politician of either persuasion brag about how they refuse to compromise – or when they attack others for being bipartisan – have them to come to West Texas in June and sit out on the porch to admire our spectacular sunsets. Amidst the buzzing of mosquitoes, ask them to explain how well the sequestration controls government spending. Just donâ€™t forget the bug spray!