Update: County Health official: Zika-related birth defects to increase

Sick of hearing about Zika already? Get used to it as more birth defects related to the virus are expected in 2017 in Florida and throughout the U.S.

This summer, there will be a full-court press by health officials against Zika.

“It’s not something to be taken lightly,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, head of the Palm Beach County Health Department, in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.

“The main emphasis again is going to be on pregnant women. The CDC expects to see a 20-fold higher proportion of Zika-affected birth defects compared to those that were seen in the 2013-14, before Zika came to the Americas.”

Before 2014, there were three cases of Zika-caused microcephaly for every 1,000 births. That number is now up to 60 cases per 1,000. “That’s a large increase,” Alonso said.

Dr. Alina Alonso, head of the Palm Beach County Health Department says pregnant women with Zika are being tracked.

Microcephaly is a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than normal.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention released a report that 15 of infants were born with birth defects in pregnancies with a confirmed Zika virus infection in the first trimester. “These findings highlight why pregnant women should avoid Zika virus exposure,” the report stated.

The CDC suggest that because the full effects of the virus is unknown, all pregnant women infected with Zika should receive postnatal imaging and a comprehensive newborn physical exam and hearing screen.

So as the summer comes barreling down the calendar, the focus of health officials will be on the mosquito-borne virus that causes severe birth defects. More than 2,000 cases have been recorded in Florida.

Alonso said she dispatched teams last summer that went door-to-door in neighborhoods about Zika. “We were very pro-active,” she said. “I expect to see more cases because the mosquito is already established here in our environment.”

The Aedes aegypti is the main culprit that carries Zika. It also can transmit dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika fever and yellow fever viruses.

The Health Department will work with doctors to continue a registry of pregnant women who are positive with Zika. “We will see if they have healthy babies or affected babies,” she said.

Alonso said the best prevention, of course, would be a vaccine, but until then citizens have to practice prevention whether it is draining standing water or using repellant. About 80 percent of people who contract the virus don’t exhibit any symptoms of fever, rash, body aches. But for those that do, Zika can have serious, even neurological, consequences.

Zika can be transmitted through sexual activity, so Alonso suggests the use of condoms or abstaining from sex for people who have traveled to infected areas in the Caribbean and South America.

And Alonso doesn’t shy away from the fact that Zika can cost the state plenty.

“Because it is affecting pregnant women, it is affecting our tourism. It is very important,” she said.

Last week Gov. Rick Scott held a news conference with Alonso to talk about efforts to combat Zika. With serious tourist dollars at stake, Scott can claim some initial victories.

He has called on the CDC for advice and assistance. A Zika hotline was created. Lab testing capacity was expanded. He has demanded more money from Washington. He used emergency power to release $61 million from the general fund for research, prevention and response. Mailers were sent out to residents in multiple languages.

Researchers are working furiously to find a vaccine.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has announced that vaccination trials have begun using an experimental DNA serum.

The trial aims to enroll at least 2,490 healthy participants in areas of confirmed or potential active mosquito-transmitted Zika infection, including the continental United States and Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico.

“A safe and effective Zika vaccine is urgently needed to prevent the often-devastating birth defects that can result from Zika virus infection during pregnancy,” NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci said on March 31.

“Evidence also is accumulating that Zika can cause a variety of health problems in adults as well. This trial marks a significant milestone in our efforts to develop countermeasures for a pandemic in progress.”

 

Gov. Rick Scott may be the mosquito’s worst enemy.

 

CDC: Sperm donated in South Florida may contain Zika

Zika not only can be transmitted through the bite of the Aedes mosquito, the birth-defect causing virus can be transmitted through sex, as well.

So the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have issued a warning for men in Palm Beach County and two others not to donate sperm because of the risk of spreading the disease, according to a story by The Associated Press.

The guidance applies also to Broward and Miami-Dade, the later the only place in Florida where there’s proof the virus was spread by mosquitos. Most cases diagnosed in Florida have been of those who contracted the disease by traveling to infected zones in the Caribbean or South America.

“When semen is donated it can be stored frozen for periods of time. It does not necessarily inactivate Zika, so it could be stored in tissue banks, used subsequently and people should be made aware,” Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told CNN. 

He said women “might want to use these donations from other sources.”

The CDC advisory is mostly precautionary.  There have been no cases of pregnant women being infected by Zika through a sperm donation. The risk is considered low but the consequences are severe. Infection during pregnancy can lead to severe brain-related birth defects

“Now we understand more than we did months ago is that evidence of the Zika virus is present in semen for up to three months after a man is infected and people may not have accurately recalled potential exposure [to the virus] especially if in a local area,” said Dr. Matthew Kuehnert, who is part of the CDC Zika emergency response team and director of the CDC office of blood, organ and other tissue safety.

He was quoted in the story on the sperm alert for CNN.

The FDA, which regulates sperm donations, said the 12 donor banks in South Florida should consider the CDC’s new advice discouraging donations from men in the three South Florida counties an FDA spokeswoman said.

The last case of mosquito transmission of Zika in Florida was in December. But officials expect another outbreak this summer.  There were 221 people who contracted got Zika from mosquitoes in the continental U.S. last year, most in the Miami area. There were six cases in Texas.