Hundreds of people in the U.S. have contracted the Zika virus. However, the people in the 50 states (as opposed to territories) who caught the illness so far had recently traveled to another country. No one in the country has bee known to have caught the disease locally. However, public health officials know it is just a matter of time as mosquito season literally heats up, so they are ready to send a rapid-response team to any state when there is a local transmission of the mosquito-borne Zika virus to help mitigate its spread.
U.S. officials do not expect to see an explosion of cases stateside, like those seen in Puerto Rico as well as countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. This is largely because Americans typically have air-conditioning and window screens than other Zika-affected regions, which will help reduce the risk of being bitten indoors. Health officials also point out that, based on past experience with dengue and chikungunya, two related viruses spread by the same species of mosquito, there is more likely to be a smattering of cases, not widespread outbreaks.
Additionally, not all mosquitos are a problem – at least for the virus. People may joke that Minnesota’s state bird is the mosquito and other states in the Northern part of the country do draw lots of mosquitos in humid months, they do not draw the Zika-carrying kind.
The Aedes species mosquito, the one that carries Zika, is mostly found in the South, Southwest and Eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, that includes several population centers. The states being watched most closely are Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden. However, other maps published by the CDC show the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas as climates able to sustain the species.
As mosquito season heats up, the CDC’s planned rapid response to any Zika infections will include testing to confirm cases, monitoring to minimize the virus’ spread, communication with the public, and increased mosquito-eradication efforts. In preparation for the inevitable cases, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia M. Burwell, Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Amy Pope, and Frieden video-conferenced with governors and officials from the areas that are believed to have the highest risk for local transmission problems. “We’re thinking through with them all the things that may happen when there is that first suspected case,” Frieden explained.
It is hard to believe a mere year ago, few people in the U.S. had ever heard of Zika, even though the virus has been known for more than 70 years. Until that time, outbreaks of the virus had occurred in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and, in the past decade, the Pacific Islands. The illness was considered to be mild and flu-like. In fact, most people do not seek medical care for Zika and recover after a within a week. Hence, no efforts were made to develop a vaccine or cure.
The picture changed last year in Brazil, when an rash of babies were born with birth defects, particularly microcephaly or small brains/heads. As the numbers of affected babies swelled, medical experts began recognizing that the women all reported being sick with the “flu” during their pregnancy and tests showed Zika spreading throughout the region.
Putting the “flu” and the birth defects together, experts began warning women throughout any infected region to delay getting pregnant during the outbreak and those who are pregnant should avoid traveling to those areas. The epidemic spread throughout Brazil and up through Latin America and the Caribbean and pictures of babies with microcephaly made Zika a household word. On Feb. 1, 2016, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency because of the microcephaly and other neurological disorders swelling in areas affected by Zika.
Experts have now concluded there is definitely a connection between Zika and birth defects. There is also evidence that the virus may have lead to an upswing in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Zika Virus
NPR: Here’s Really Where Zika Mosquitoes Are Likely In The U.S.
Miami Herald: When Zika hits in the U.S., CDC will deploy rapid-response teams
Map showing counties where Aedes mosquitos have been present between Jan. 1, 1995, and March 2016. Areas in red have had outbreaks of that mosquito at least three of those years and are most likely to harbor Zika-carrying mosquitos, orange areas represent two years, courtesy of the CDC.