Dr. Anne Schuchat from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced on April 11th that the specific mosquito which is the main disease vector for the Zika virus has been found in 30 states in the U.S., far more than previously thought. “We are quite concerned about Puerto Rico, said Dr. Schuchat, “where the virus is spreading throughout the island. We think there could be hundreds of thousands of cases of Zika virus in Puerto Rico and perhaps hundreds of affected babies.”
Dr. Schuchat made her remarks at a press briefing at which she was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Health and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
The Zika virus is similar to Dengue fever, a disease that has been problematic in Puerto Rico for many years. In fact, the similarity of symptoms — fever and other flu-like symptoms, sometimes with a rash — makes it difficult to distinguish between cases of Dengue and of Zika.
However, a small genetic difference between Dengue and Zika has been found: Zika tends to stay in the bloodstream of pregnant women far longer than viruses of this type normally do, and longer than it stays in the systems of people who are not pregnant.
This may be part of the explanation of the very serious consequences of Zika to the babies of women who are infected with Zika. The CDC and the National Institutes of Health reported that they are seeing more effects as they continue to study the virus. Microencephaly, a birth defect in which the baby’s head and brain are abnormally small , was one of the first concerns. Now, it appears that vision problems are another possible outcome for the babies born to mothers infected by Zika.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” Dr. Schuchat said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Health went on to say that, while the Zika virus was first seen in 1947 and first found in humans in 1952, there have not previously been outbreaks of the current kind or size. With the larger numbers comes additional information, including the possibility that this virus — which sometimes doesn’t even cause any symptoms at all — may be associated with other very serious conditions of the brain and nervous system:
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Acute myelitis
- ADEM, Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis
Zika is typically spread by mosquitoes. If an individual who is already infected with Zika is bitten by a mosquito which is not already carrying the virus, that mosquito can carry the Zika virus present in the blood of that person and infect more people. Zika can also be transmitted by sexual contact. The CDC is asking travelers who come to the U.S. from Caribbean or Latin American destinations to use mosquito repellent for several weeks after returning to the U.S., but this means of stopping the spread of Zika is not effective in Puerto Rico, where there is already a large population of insects carrying the virus.
Zika prevention kits have been distributed in Puerto Rico. These kits contain vouchers for window screens, to try to help keep mosquitoes out of homes; condoms to limit sexual transmission of Zika; insect repellent; and information about the virus.
However, based on previous experience with Dengue and Chikungunya viruses, both of which are spread by the same mosquito, experts fear that 25% to 80% of the population of Puerto Rico could eventually be affected by the Zika virus.
Puerto Rico’s current financial difficulties add to the problem. Puerto Rico also has a shortage of doctors, as they have been moving to states during the ongoing economic problems, and its federal healthcare support is less than it would receive as a state.