The United States is very likely to face a broader outbreak of Zika, a virus that has plagued South America this past year, which could result in scores of people being infected and affected, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ (part of the National Institutes of Health or NIH) director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who appeared on CBS News’ Face the Nation, on Sunday. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global health emergency on Zika and, as outlined by the NIH doctor, the U.S. government, public health officials on a national and state level, and researchers are scrambling in their efforts to prepare for and deal with the illness. However, he seemed to downplay the concern.
The doctor emphasized that there have been more than 350 cases of Zika within the 50 states (as opposed to cases in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories). Nearly all of those people or their sexual partners had traveled to a country with a Zika outbreak and brought the illness back to the U.S.
Fauci did acknowledge that that is likely to change as the warm summer months and mosquito season arrives. (The illness is mostly transmitted by mosquito bites, but can be transmitted sexually and in blood.) Surprisingly, Fauci indicated that he did not expect a large number of people in this country to fall ill. He said, “We’re talking about scores of cases, dozens of cases, at most.”
During the telecast, which seemed like a public relations effort to assuage fear, he indicated that they believe the number of infections will be low because Zika is transmitted by the same mosquito as dengue and chikungunya, which have been in the Caribbean, Central America and South American countries for awhile. “The critical issue is that, in the past, we have successfully prevented it from becoming sustained and disseminated.”
This optimism and the impression that dengue has not been an issue in the U.S. is not true. More than 260 people have come down with confirmed cases of dengue in Hawaii within the past six months and more than 1,400 potential cases were reported. Other cases have been reported in Florida.
The Zika virus was first detected in Brazil last spring and has since spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The virus has been tied to more than 4,000 cases of babies being born with microcephaly, a previously rare birth defect evidenced by an unusually small head size and poor brain development. There are also increased cases of other neurological ailments in affected areas that could be eventually linked to Zika, such as the paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome. Mentioning some of the neurological problems being reported, Fauci said, “So far they look unusual, but at least we’ve seen them and that’s concerning.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working on multiple fronts to combat the virus, including development of a vaccine and ways to control mosquito populations. Fauci also pressed that the administration has asked Congress to budget $1.9 billion dollars in emergency funds to fight the virus.
In discussing Zika and outlining U.S. efforts to deal with it, the NIH doctor also took the opportunity Sunday morning to tell pregnant women in the U.S. that he believes there is no cause for alarm here. However, women who are considering getting or are already pregnant should take the travel warnings seriously and avoid visiting affected countries. He also called for men who travel to Zika infected areas to refrain from sex or use a condom for at least six months afterwards and, “if you have a pregnant partner, for the entirety of the pregnancy,” he said.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
CBS News: NIH doctor explains U.S efforts to combat Zika virus
Face the Nation: Dr. Anthony Fauci
Reuters: Local Zika outbreaks in United States ‘likely’: U.S. official
Fox News: Top Obama doc Fauci to Congress on Zika funding: ‘Act now’
Hawaii News Now: New case of dengue fever reported on Hawaii Island
Photo by James Gathany, courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention