By Maria Rocha-Buschel
New York State Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker hosted a webinar last Monday afternoon offering information for New Yorkers about the Zika virus, which was also declared a global emergency by the W.H.O. earlier this month.
Zucker said that the virus is transmitted primarily by mosquitoes and labs have confirmed Zika cases in travelers returning from areas in Central America, South America, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
While the disease is usually mild and those who get sick generally display symptoms such as a fever, rash and joint pain for about a week, the virus has been linked to a condition called microcephaly in babies born to mothers in Latin and Central America who are infected.
“Because there is neither a vaccine to prevent or treat Zika, the CDC recommends that pregnant women reconsider travel to these areas,” Zucker said.
Numerous sources also reported last week that the virus was transmitted in the United States for the first time through sexual contact. The Atlantic reported last Tuesday that the case in Dallas County in Texas was confirmed by the CDC and prior to this, the more than 30 case that had been reported in the country were among travelers returning from Latin America.
Zucker said that the evidence so far does not suggest that pregnancy makes women more susceptible to the virus, but in some cases Zika has been detected prenatally in amniotic fluid and those women experienced symptoms consistent with the virus in their second trimester.
Following the announcement that the virus can be sexually transmitted, the CDC is now recommending that pregnant women abstain from sex or use condoms for the duration of the pregnancy if their male partner has traveled to an area with active Zika virus transmission.
Two weeks ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the New York State Department of Health to expand the free Zika virus testing program for all pregnant women who have traveled to areas where the infection is ongoing, regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms. The governor’s office reported that there have been 11 positive cases of the Zika virus in New York State residents and all of the infected patients were returning travelers from countries where the virus is ongoing.
Due to concerns regarding birth defects associated with the virus, the Department of Health will be expanding testing to all symptomatic and asymptomatic pregnant women with recent travel history.
Although Zucker noted that New Yorkers are not particularly at risk at home right now because of the season, he said that strategies for prevention for anyone traveling to the affected areas primarily include protection against mosquito bites.
“You should be using an EPA registered insect repellent with DEET, which should be reapplied,” he said. “It’s also important to wear long sleeved shirts and stay in screened-in or air conditioned rooms. Some people think of bugs as coming out at night but this type of mosquito bite primarily during the day so it’s important to use these strategies throughout the day.”
Zucker added that Zika is not a new virus and was first isolated in a monkey as long ago as 1947. The virus has been found in Africa and Southeast Asia, in addition to Micronesia in 2007 and suspected outbreaks in French Polynesia in 2013.