Remember when you first heard about Zika? It was probably in early 2015, and it may have been related to the then-upcoming Olympic games in Rio. I recall U.S. health experts suggesting that Zika, if and when it spread to the U.S., would be a concern in the far-off future.
Maybe the speed of the virus spreading was underestimated, or it was just hoped that it would spread slower, but that future has arrived. Five people have become ill from the mosquito-borne virus — discovered in Brazil in 2015 — that have not recently visited areas of the world where the Zika virus is known to be. The CDC now confirms that Zika virus is indeed in the local mosquito population of 2 Florida sites: Miami Beach and an area north of Miami.
“Active transmission is happening between 8th and 28th streets, an area just under 1.5 miles,” said Florida Governor Rick Scott during a news conference, according to NBC News.
That’s really specific — and scary.
I remember how Americans reacted when West Nile Virus (WNV), another mosquito-borne virus originating in Japan, was found in New York City in 1999. Within 3 years, WNV had spread across the country. There was a bit of panic.
However, only 1 in 5 people infected by WNV showed any symptoms, which feels a lot like influenza. The less than 1% of infected people who do become seriously ill had symptoms similar to meningitis. Those most at risk were the elderly and those with certain medical conditions that make them more susceptible overall to illness.
When news breaks of a new virus being spread by mosquitoes, the masses tend to picture something like malaria in their heads — some end-of-the-world type scenario where a deadly virus is spreading uncontrollably. WNV is far from that.
And, for most people, Zika is similar to WNV. Only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika will show any symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. It’s rare for any one person to become seriously ill.
But, for a subset of the general population, Zika is not a virus to take lightly.
Zika can cause serious issues to unborn babies, spreading through the bloodstream from a pregnant mother to her baby. Zika is linked to birth defects, including severe brain defects such as microcephaly where the baby’s head is smaller than typical and is associated with seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, movement and balance issues, feeding problems, hearing loss, and vision problems.
Right now, the CDC has warned pregnant women to stay away from Miami Beach and the affected area north of Miami. And there continues to speculation that Zika will remain a local infection, rather than spread across the United States.
Local outbreaks occur when someone infected with Zika is bitten by a mosquito, which then goes on to bite another uninfected person. Only the Aedes mosquito, specially the aegypti, is known to spread Zika.
However, more shocking than that the fact that virus has now taken up U.S. residency is that the Zika virus is now known to circulate in not only a person’s blood, but also semen, and can be found in saliva and urine. While Zika is still considered to be primarily spread by mosquitoes and not person-to-person, the CDC has warned sexual partners of pregnant women to consistently and correctly use condoms to prevent infection or to abstain for the duration of the pregnancy.
Like anything new, Zika is a constantly evolving story. But what seems set in stone here is that Zika-carrying mosquitoes are in Miami Beach posing a serious risk to unborn babies, and both pregnant mothers and their partners need to be on guard to try to prevent exposure of Zika to their little one.