CDC: Zika Virus Has Spread To Haiti; 15 Places Now Affected
Haiti’s Florence Duperval Guillaume
PORT-AU-PRINCE – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning pregnant woman and others to be aware when traveling to countries where a new mosquito-borne illness — possibly linked to babies born with small, undeveloped brains in Brazil — has appeared.
The travel alert came the same day that Haitian health officials confirmed that the Zika virus was present in that country.
“We’ve always said that once we are certain of something, we will say it,” Minister Florence Guillaume said at a press conference Friday. “We have scientifically confirmed that the illness… everyone calls Zika is in Haiti.”
Hours later, the CDC in Atlanta, which was considering whether to warn pregnant women against travel to countries in the region where Zika is present, issued its travel alert.
The countries it warned about are: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela, as well as Puerto Rico. Caribbean health officials say the virus is also present in Guyana.
“Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip,” the CDC said.
The health agency acknowledged that it’s difficult to determine specific areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
For weeks, Haitians had suspected that the rare virus, which has been quickly spreading through South America, Central America and the Caribbean, was present in Haiti. But health officials had refused to confirm their suspicions that the flu-like symptoms of fever, red eyes and rashes were Zika.
Spread by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads dengue fever and chikungunya, Zika was first discovered in Uganda in 1947. But its spread from Africa and Southeast Asia had been rare, even though it usually follows an outbreak of chikungunya fever, which threatened the social and economic development of small island economies after it was first detected in the Western Hemisphere in December 2013.
Recalling chikungunya’s quick spread in the Caribbean last year, Dr. James Hospedales said he expects Zika to also quickly spread to other Caribbean islands. Hospedales is the executive director of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency, which confirmed Zika’s presence in Haiti after receiving blood samples from the health ministry.
Meanwhile, health officials say a baby born in a Hawaii hospital is the first in the United States born with Zika virus.
The CDC said Sunday it’s also the first infant born in the country with microcephaly (mye-CROW’-sef-ah-LEE’) associated with Zika virus. It’s a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected. Babies with the condition often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly.
The state Department of Health announced Friday that the baby was born recently in an Oahu hospital. The mother likely had the mosquito-borne virus while living in Brazil and her newborn acquired the infection in the womb.
Neither the baby nor the mother is infectious. Officials say there’s no risk of transmission in Hawaii.
In Brazil, health officials are studying whether the virus is linked to microcephaly, a condition in which a children are born with damaged, smaller than normal brains. The number of cases have jumped dramatically since 2014, and the CDC says more research is needed to determine the relationship, but pregnant women should take precautions.
The Brazilian government announced it will direct funds to a biomedical research center to help develop a vaccine against a virus linked to brain damage in babies.
Health Minister Marcelo Castro said Friday that the goal is for the Sao Paulo-based Butantan Institute to develop “in record time” a vaccine for Zika, which is spread through mosquito bites.
Institute director Jorge Kalil said that is expected take 3 to 5 years.
Brazil is currently experiencing the largest known outbreak of Zika. The virus has been linked to a recent surge in birth defects including microcephaly, a rare condition in which newborns have smaller than normal heads and their brains do not develop properly.
The Health Ministry says 3,530 babies have been born with microcephaly in the country since October. Fewer than 150 such cases were seen in all of 2014.
Most have been concentrated in Brazil’s poor northeast, though cases in Rio de Janeiro and other big cities have also been on the rise, prompting people to stock up on mosquito repellent.
Some women of means have left the country to spend their pregnancies in the United States or Europe to avoid infection.
The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can also carry dengue and chikungunya.
“Today there is only one way to fight the Zika virus, which is to destroy the mosquito’s breeding grounds,” Castro said. “The final victory against the virus will only come when we develop a vaccine against that disease.”
The CDC issued an alert Friday advising pregnant women to avoid traveling to Brazil and several other countries in the Americas where Zika outbreaks have occurred.