Area colleges, Va. senators respond to growing threat of Zika

WASHINGTON — Area colleges and other groups that sponsor international trips are informing their communities about the Zika virus but are not curtailing travel despite the global spread of the virus, including a handful of cases here in the Mid-Atlantic region.

All of the D.C. region’s reported cases of the virus have involved foreign travel. Three cases have been reported in D.C., one confirmed case and possibly a second have been reported in Virginia and Maryland has reported no cases of the viral infection.

Parts of South America, Central America and the Caribbean are among the areas fighting a full-blown outbreak of the Zika virus, which has led to travel and health warnings. And both of Virginia’s senators have asked for better screening at major international entry points and for funding to combat the disease’s spread in North America.

Georgetown University issued guidance this week telling members of the campus community who experience symptoms and have recently traveled to one of the countries on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel advisory list to see a doctor or go to Georgetown’s Student Health Center immediately.

George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences said it was monitoring the situation due to the large number of students, faculty and residents who travel overseas. The school provided information about the virus plus additional resources.

Richmond-based International Mission Board, which is among the largest missionary organizations in the world, echoes recommendations from the CDC that pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where Zika transmission is occurring. In a statement, the group says all of its personnel are trained in appropriate steps to prevent mosquito bites, and that none of its personnel are currently relocating because of the virus.

The CDC says the most common symptoms of Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain, and eye redness, and that the illness is usually mild, with symptoms lasting from several days to a week.

But the agency says women who are pregnant should consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing due to the risk of birth defects. It says men who have traveled to an area with ongoing Zika transmission should consider using condoms consistently to protect their sexual partners, and all pregnant travelers returning from areas with ongoing Zika transmission should be evaluated for infection.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, all of the patients found to have Zika had recently traveled to areas where the virus is being transmitted by mosquitoes. So far, the only recent case that has been transmitted within the continental United States is believed to have occurred in Texas through sex.

There have been no cases of Zika in Maryland, according to Christopher Garrett of the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The D.C. Department of Health has confirmed three cases of Zika in the District. One of those infected is a pregnant woman.

In Virginia, a mother of three from Harrisonburg says she has been diagnosed with the first known case in the state. Heather Baker thinks she contracted the virus in November while on a mission trip in Guatemala.

The Virginia Department of Health says only that there has been one laboratory-confirmed case of Zika infection in a Virginia resident, adding that the person resides in the northwest part of the state and had traveled to Central America. Spokeswoman Maribeth Brewster says the department does not discuss details of individual cases.

Officials at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg have also said a student contracted the Zika virus while traveling in Central America over winter break. Brewster says the department also does not discuss any suspected case under investigation.

Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are calling for additional funding to prevent transmission of the virus in the Unites States, and to counter the spread of the disease in Puerto Rico, where it is already present.

In a letter Friday, the senators called on President Obama to ensure that the federal government is working with local and state agencies to develop strategies for protecting Virginians from the threat. They specifically mention a review of screening procedures at major points of entry from South America and more intensive medical research efforts.

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