To date, 31 cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed in the United States spread across 12 states, from Hawaii to Massachusetts. All have been related to travel. In Florida, on Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties where at least nine people have tested positive for the Zika virus. Health officials have classified those cases as travel related as well.
“This is a whole new ballgame,” Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the Division of Vector Borne Diseases at the CDC told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “We have more questions than answers.”
Zika, is a virus primarily passed from person to person by only two kinds of mosquitoes. One of the culprits is the Aedes albopictus, commonly found in the Midwest and the South. The other, the Aedes aegypti, is most common in the states of the Deep South, including East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and a small portion of lower Tennessee. Four out of five people who contract the virus get it through mosquito bites.
State health officials warned last week it would only be a matter of time before the virus surfaced in Georgia. In addition to a warm climate friendly to mosquitoes, the state is also home to the world’s busiest airport.
Originally found in Africa decades ago, the virus spread to the Pacific Islands. Some speculated Zika made its latest entrance into the Americas during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the CDC said Wednesday that was impossible to confirm, since “millions of people travel on planes every year.” But Petersen did say the virus currently ravaging Brazil is a strain usually found in the Pacific Islands.
The CDC will release new guidelines later this week for pregnant women who have traveled to countries with active outbreaks, Petersen said. Detection can be difficult if the mother has no symptoms of the virus. Until recently the CDC recommended sonograms and amniocentesis for pregnant women who have have possibly been exposed to the virus, but those detection methods can be costly. A blood test can show antibodies for the virus in the blood stream, much the way a person who has had measles has antibodies to that disease in their blood stream. But there is no way to cure the virus once a person is exposed.
In Texas, a man who’d traveled to Venezuela apparently infected his sexual partner with the virus on his return to the U.S., the CDC confirmed this week. While it is not the first time the virus has been passed along sexually, it is the first time it has happened in this country since the latest outbreak began.
The agency is also working on protocols to prevent sexual transmission of the disease, which Petersen stressed was very rare. Apart from the Texas case, there has been only one other known sexual transmission of the disease in the United States. That happened in 2008 in Colorado, and involved a researcher who contracted the disease while working in Africa. Upon his return, he wound up passing the virus to his wife.
About four out of five people get the Zika virus and have no symptoms. The most common symptoms are joint pain, fever, conjunctivitis and rash. It usually runs its course in a few days. For an expectant mother, exposure can be disastrous. Children born with Microcephaly can suffer with a host of developmental and cognitive issues, in addition to living with the tell-tale physical deformity. But researchers don’t yet know when the virus might affect a developing fetus, whether it’s early in a pregnancy or later.
For now there is no vaccine for the disease. There won’t be one in the short-term, said Petersen, at least not soon enough to stunt this current health crisis. Petersen is leading the CDC’s response to the virus.
“There are good vaccines for related viruses we know are effective,” said Petersen, though they won’t work on preventing Zika. Even so, “I’m optimistic something can be developed,” he said.
Pregnant women or those who think they are pregnant are advised by the CDC not to travel to countries that are experiencing an outbreak of the disease. For a list of affected countries visit http://www.cdc.gov/travel/page/zika-travel-information.