Zika virus has been spreading in tropical climates
Photograph by Mario Tama Getty Images
By Laura Lorenzetti
February 3, 2016

The World Health Organization declared Monday that Zika is a global health emergency–marking only the fourth time it’s applied that label to a disease outbreak since 2007. WHO has warned that the virus is “spreading explosively, ” reaching more than 20 countries so far. While the U.S. has remained largely outside the transmission range, government agencies have been preparing for the virus’ potential arrival stateside.

Unlike last year’s Ebola outbreak, preparation for Zika virus requires a much more nuanced approach. There’s no need for isolation chambers or stockpiles of protective gear. The virus isn’t spread easily–if at all–from person-to-person. (There are very rare cases where it may have spread via sexual contact.) It is a mosquito-borne disease, and the mosquito itself has to pick up the disease from an infected human before it can pass it along. The true danger of Zika virus is its possible link to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes a small head and incomplete brain development in babies, after a pregnant woman has been infected.

Very little is know about the Zika virus, and there’s currently no treatments or vaccines available. Therefore, the CDC and local health care practitioners are relying on communicating new information as quickly as possible to help prepare health care practitioners and the public for Zika’s potential arrival in the U.S.

Here’s what the CDC and other government agencies are doing now.

Clarifying the local risk.

Even though much isn’t know about Zika, U.S. officials do have a pretty good idea of how it could spread locally and how to keep it in check when it does. Clarifying the risk, helps government agencies educate local doctors, researchers, and community members about when and where the disease could show up first so the virus can be kept in check.

“Many areas of the United States have mosquitoes that can become infected with and transmit Zika virus,” said Lyle Peterson, director of the CDC’s division of vector-borne diseases. “However, recent chikungunya and dengue outbreaks in the United States suggest that Zika outbreaks in the U.S. mainland may be relatively small and local.”

“Better housing construction, regular use of air conditioning, use of window screens and door screens and state and local mosquito control efforts helped to eliminate these ongoing outbreaks from the mainland,” he said.

Experts have also warned, based on past cases of dengue and chikungunya, that areas of south Florida and the Gulf Coast are most at risk for local cases of Zika.

Issuing a travel warning.

The CDC has expanded its travel warning to a total of 28 countries and territories where there have been reports of Zika virus infection. The four most recent additions to the list included American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao, and Nicaragua.

Pregnant women are being advised, in particular, to consider postponing travel to any country where the Zika virus is current active, and women who are considering getting pregnant are advised to talk with their doctor before visiting areas with a travel warning.

Setting up reporting system and care guidelines.

The CDC has also issued interim guidelines for clinicians concerning how to treat pregnant women who have been diagnosed with Zika and how to care for infants born to mothers who could have been infected during their pregnancies. The agency is now requiring all Zika cases be reported to state and territorial health departments, as well.

Stepping up research.

Even before WHO’s declaration of a global health emergency, President Obama called for more research into the Zika virus and potential treatments. Various companies, academic institutions, and government agencies have answered the call, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases (NIAID).

NIAID Direct Anthony Fauci said the group is focusing its efforts on “several fronts,” including supporting research to understand the virus’ effect on the body (especially in pregnancy), developing better diagnostic platforms, and working on vaccine candidates to eventually prevent infection.

“We need to look at Zika virus in its context as the latest in a series of mosquito- borne diseases that have expanded their reach in the past 20 years,” said Fauci. “We need vaccine platforms that can be quickly modified for protection against emerging new threats, and we need broad spectrum antiviral drugs effective against whole classes of viruses, as opposed to a one-bug, one-drug approach. This has been and will continue to be an important area of emphasis for NIAID.”

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