Zika Update: Florida Experiencing Multiple Outbreaks; Zika Transmission from Native Mosquitoes Likely

By Bri Ziganti

As of Friday, state health officials confirmed that two new cases of Zika transmission have been identified, raising Florida’s total infection count to 26 cases and currently marking them as the most heavily infected state in America.  All 26 patients were bitten while traveling outside the state, good news (but likely to change) for those worried about the native mosquito population carrying the virus.  To date, there have been no reports of infected pregnant American women.

Zika Transmission from native mosquitoes is likelyThe CDC has identified only 82 total instances of the Zika virus in the continental United States, a far cry from South America’s massive outbreak of more than 25,000 cases.  The World Health Organization suspects that up to 4,004 Brazilian children may have been stricken with microcephaly while still in the womb.

As Zika spreads throughout the southern hemisphere, U.S. infectious disease specialists are desperately trying to figure out exactly which mosquito species can carry the virus, and what long-term effects, if any, infection will cause its victims.

Edward McCabe, chief medical officer of the March of Dimes, warns that being exposed to Zika in the womb may not just put the baby at risk for developing microcephaly, but can also cause issues with newborn’s eyesight or even cause the pregnancy to miscarry.  Three such cases have been identified in the U.S.: one Hawaiian infant was born with microcephaly after its mother spent her pregnancy in Brazil, and two fetuses were miscarried after their mothers were infected with Zika.  Although these findings aren’t conclusive, it brings greater urgency to getting this outbreak under control.

What do officials say they know for sure about Zika?

The Zika virus is commonly found in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific islands.  While it has a wide range, Zika has never caused an outbreak of this magnitude, typically generating only isolated incidents.  The second largest recognized wave of infections was in 2007, when a minor outbreak in Micronesia infected 31 people.

For whatever reason, Zika is now spreading rapidly around the globe.  And as for whether the U.S. will experience native transmission from local mosquitoes?

“It’s not if, it’s when,” said Mustapha Debboun, director of the mosquito control division at Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services in Houston.

“Travelers will bring the virus back to the United States, and sooner or later, the mosquitoes will pick up the virus,” he predicted.

Dawn Wesson, associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, concurs with Debboun’s assessment, stating that Hawaii, Southern Florida, Southern California, and other areas along the Gulf Coast are at risk for a local spread of the virus.

“There’s a good chance we’ll see it this coming summer,” she said.  Any American living in or planning to visit these areas should take precautions such as applying mosquito repellent, wearing long sleeves, and preventing their yards from holding any shallow standing water such as large puddles and bird baths.

What are the confirmed signs of Zika transmission?

Zika symptoms typically include rash, fever, a stiffness or tenderness in the joints, and the most characteristic hallmark of infection: red eyes.  Symptoms are usually so mild that most victims will attribute their affliction to the common flu or won’t notice they are sick at all.

Zika has never proved to be fatal or even particularly unpleasant in children or adults; however, there has been a noticeable link between Zika infection in pregnant mothers and the development of microcephaly in their unborn fetuses.  After CDC officials confirmed that Zika can be spread through sexual contact, and found that Zika will remain active in semen even longer than in the blood, it has been recommended that pregnant women abstain from sex or use a condom to protect themselves and their developing baby.  It is also more important than ever for expecting mothers in vulnerable areas to keep up with prenatal appointments and screenings.  Pregnant women in their first trimester are considered to be at the highest risk.

What is the United States’ current plan of action?

The Florida health department knows that mosquito season is fast approaching, and anticipates that locally-borne infections will start appearing within the next few months.  To stay ahead of any issues, they have created a Zika information hotline that citizens can call for daily updates.  Pregnant women have been advised not to travel to the Caribbean, Mexico, or Brazil if possible.  Most importantly, regional blood banks plan to start testing all blood donors for Zika using a nucleic acid test.  If you would like more information about Zika transmission, you can dial the hotline at 855.622.6735.

Unfortunately, the development of a Zika vaccine can and probably will take years to approve.  More stringent testing of donated fluids and increased caution in the coming summer months will have to become a priority for many Americans and American healthcare professionals.

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