Called a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization, Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes in 26 countries and territories in the Americas.
“We must be prepared to protect the American people from the full range of threats we may face,” Burr said in a press release.
The White House requested $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress to better prepare efforts to combat the virus as mosquitos become more active in spring and summer.
“We must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the Southern United States,” the administration said in a press release.
Much to learn about Zika virus
Helen Lazear is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the UNC School of Medicine and an expert on the virus.
“We’re still learning a lot more about what’s going on,” she said. “Although this virus isn’t new to science — we’ve known about this virus for 70 years — very little basic research has been done on it, and there’s a lot we don’t know.”
An overall lack of knowledge about the virus can be chalked up to the little trouble humans have had with Zika in the past, according to Dr. Myron Cohen, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.
Lazear said we do know several things about the virus, including its relation to yellow fever and West Nile virus and its transmission by mosquitoes.
Dr. Steve Meshnick, professor and associate chairperson of the UNC Department of Epidemiology, said the specific mosquito that is currently transmitting the virus is known as Aedes aegypti and is present, but not virus carrying, in Florida.
Cohen said Zika virus is not deadly, and four out of five people infected do not show symptoms. When symptoms do arise, they are generally mild and include fever, headache, rashes, joint pain and red eyes.
There is no vaccine for Zika virus, and it could take a year or more before one can be developed, Cohen said.
Effects of the virus
The current outbreak differs from those beginning in 2007, given its larger reach and more serious medical complications, Lazear said.
One such complication associated to Zika virus infection is Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can ultimately result in paralysis, Lazear said. While the association between Zika virus and Guillain-Barré is still being investigated, at this point it seems to be a pretty solid connection, she said.
The most alarming complication possibly connected to the Zika virus epidemic is microcephaly, a birth defect that impacts brain development, Lazear said.
“The spike in (microcephaly) cases has happened following the emergence of Zika virus in Brazil, and the greatest number of cases is concentrated in the same areas where the outbreak was the greatest,” Lazear said.
Cohen said cases of microcephaly have increased by about 20 times in northern Brazil, where Zika virus has been most prevalent. Any virus that affects reproductive health is a serious concern, he said.
More research is currently underway to try and prove this connection, Cohen said.
Possible spread to U.S.
Lazear, Cohen and Meshnick all said the potential spread of the virus depends on mosquitoes and their interaction with patients infected with Zika in Latin America.
“That is a public health concern across the South,” Cohen said. “Everywhere there is Aedes mosquitos, there’s concern.”
Lazear said because the southern-most states have Aedes mosquitoes, it is certainly possible for the Zika virus outbreak to spread nationally, but various factors make it unlikely. These include the use of window screens, air conditioning, indoor lifestyles and colder winters.
Simple measures such as wearing long sleeves and using mosquito repellent can greatly reduce the chances of being bitten by a mosquito — a carrier of the virus.
“We are not immune from this, but I think it’s unlikely that there would be a large-scale outbreak here,” she said.