Zika virus confirmed in Virginia

July 16, 2024 | A major outbreak? “We’re going to be very vigilant … but it is unlikely” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health)

WASHINGTON — A Virginia resident from the northwestern part of the state is the first confirmed case of Zika virus in our region.

The Virginia Department of Health says this person picked up the mosquito-borne virus while traveling in an infected area, but cannot transmit the virus.

That’s because swarms of mosquitoes don’t survive the snow and cold of a Washington-area winter.    And even if they did, the specific type of mosquito linked to Zika is very rare around here.

The main concern right now is for those who travel to areas where the virus is rampant. It’s been seen as far away as French Polynesia and Cape Verde off the coast of Africa. But it’s an outbreak in South and Central America that is making headlines, due in large part to the possibility the virus could be linked to birth defects.

For those of us in the Washington area, the Virginia announcement underscores the need for caution and awareness.

“I think that it should be a wake-up call,” says Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University.

Lucey, who teaches in the medical school as well as the university’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, is the co-author of a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling on the World Health Organization to take action now to keep the disease from spreading. He says it is the greatest threat to countries that don’t have the kind of good public health infrastructure seen in the United States.

The chances are unlikely that Zika could pose a threat here after the spring thaw, unless the virus turns up in a type of mosquito that is common to the region, he says.

“The mosquito that we know for sure spreads Zika virus in Latin America and elsewhere is a particular kind of mosquito called Aedes Aegypti and it is primarily only in the southeast and southern parts of the United States,” says Lucey, adding “most of the country wouldn’t be at risk.”

Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging all travelers to infected countries to use  caution, just as they would if they were in an area rife with, say, West Nile virus. Health officials recommend that travelers cover up with clothing, use approved mosquito repellents and try to stay away from areas with the most mosquito activity.

For most people exposed to Zika virus, the effects are mild. But because certain birth defects in places like Brazil have been associated with the virus, the CDC is urging women who are or hope to become pregnant to take extra precautions or even consider postponing their travel.

Lucey is a great fan of the agency’s handling of Zika, and points to the CDC website as the best source of public information about the virus. But he admits if a woman close to him was either pregnant or hoping to conceive, he would go a step further.

“Rather than say ‘consider postponing,’ it would be my advice as a family member or a friend, I would say ‘don’t go’.”

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