Zika is here, but local health officials say don't panic

Photo of Justin Papp
Jim Cameron, from left, Dr. Caleb Moore and David Knauf speak at a public forum on Zika at Darien Public Library on March 31.
Jim Cameron, from left, Dr. Caleb Moore and David Knauf speak at a public forum on Zika at Darien Public Library on March 31.Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — With the first case of Zika confirmed in Connecticut and fears escalating amid the outbreak that started in Brazil a year ago, area health officials had a message for the public at recently at the Darien Library: Don’t panic.

Darien Health Director David Knauf and Dr. Caleb Moore of Greenwich Hospital held a public forum moderated by Representative Town Meeting member Jim Cameron on March 31.

Prompted by questions from Cameron, early in the night both Knauf and Moore acknowledged that there were dangers associated with Zika. Since the outbreak began the virus has spread through much of South and Central America and the Caribbean. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 312 travel-related Zika cases have been reported in the U.S., although, because the virus is typically asymptomatic, Knauf and Moore speculated that the actual number of Americans infected by the virus could be in the thousands.

And because its symptoms often fail to register, health officials worry about the risk of unsuspecting carriers transmitting the infection sexually.

“What’s different about this is that it seems to exist in sperm longer than it does in other bodily fluids. A man can be infected and be spreading the virus without knowing that they have it,” Moore said.

Officials believe Zika can survive in sperm for more than 60 days.

“The standard advice is that if you’ve been to the Caribbean and you’re of childbearing age, you abstain, Knauf said. “The other advice is use condoms.”

The consequences of birth complications as a result of Zika have been well documented, and much of the fear surrounding the virus has to do with its suspected relationship with microcephaly — a condition in which the brain and skull of a newborn do not develop properly, often causing mental and physical disabilities.

“There’s still a lot of research going on trying to determine whether or not it is the direct link,” Moore said of microcephaly. “But in Brazil when they look at the epidemiologic data, what they’re recognizing is the rates of microcephaly are much higher in the areas where there’s Zika. There’s circumstantial data that suggests not just a correlation, but a causal relationship between the two.”

Still, Moore added that researchers in Micronesia and French Polynesia, two sites of earlier outbreaks, determined that only between 1 and 3 percent of newborn babies with mother’s infected with Zika suffered from any kind of birth defect. The exact nature of the relationship between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome — a rare disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its nerves, sometimes causing paralysis — is also unclear at this point, though the Brazilian Ministry of Health has reported an increased number of cases in people infected with Zika.

Global warming might play role

Aside from its still largely unknown consequences, what is captivating about Zika, according to Knauf, is that it is part of a series of new health concerns, once foreign, but now making their way to areas like Connecticut.

The spread of Zika, Knauf said, might be a result of climate change and globalization. Though the primary carrier of the Zika virus, the mosquito Aedes aegypti, cannot survive the seasonal cold of Connecticut, a versatile secondary carrier, the Asian tiger mosquito, has become a part of the ecosystem in Fairfield County over the past decade.

“The Asian tiger was actually imported in tires, Knauf said. “It was first found in Houston in 1985 and came in from Japan. It’s made it’s way up the coast since then.”

Moore also mentioned the recent emergence, or expected emergence, of diseases including malaria and dengue fever in the U.S., due to more hospitable living conditions further north as a result of climate change.

“This is one of the tremendous changes that we’re seeing in the world today,” Knauf said. “What once was localized is no longer localized. It’s new to this country and it’s a new experience even to this hemisphere.”

Vaccine in the works?

But not all is negative. With spread of diseases such as Zika to regions of the world in which the infection was previously foreign come some unintended positive consequences.

“The good and the bad about an outbreak like this when it comes into the Americas and the Western World is that suddenly there’s a market and an interest by Pharma to make a vaccine,” Moore said.

Knauf added that there is no timetable for a Zika vaccine.

Still, as the night progressed and the requisite discussion of the virus’ risks had transpired, both men reiterated that even with further spread of the infection likely as summer approaches, the evidence available does not support a panicked response.

Currently there are no travel bans to countries where Zika-carrying mosquitoes are known to dwell. Doctors are advising women who have recently been in one of those countries to wait a month before trying to get pregnant, and are telling men to wait six months.

“It’s certainly a cause for investigation and concern but, at the same time, unless you’re a pregnant woman or a woman looking to get pregnant, or a man who is also looking to conceive, I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” Moore said.

justin.papp@scni.com; dariennewsonline.com