The CDC now says we should be more worried about Zika than we initially thought. They say the virus has been linked to more birth defects than just microcephaly—premature birth and blindness are two other noted birth defects that doctors have confirmed if a pregnant woman is infected earlier in pregnancy. They confirmed Zika is spread through sexual contact as well, and that the Aedes Aegypti species of mosquito is present in 30 states, not just 12 (as previously thought).
"Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” said principal deputy director of the CDC, Dr. Anne Schucat.
Despite efforts to stave off the spread of the Zika virus in the U.S., CDC officials are warning that mosquito abatement, lab tests and vaccine research may not be enough as the warm weather months approach. All 346 confirmed cases of Zika thus far within the U.S. have been linked to people who recently traveled to countries where Zika has been prevalent.
Out of the 346 cases, the CDC says 32 were pregnant women and 7 cases have been confirmed as sexually transmitted. However, in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa, there have been 354 cases reported (3 travel-related, and 37 pregnant women) the virus is being transmitted locally.
Most alarmingly, the CDC says Zika has been linked to more birth defects than previously thought. Researchers say they don’t know how many pregnant women infected by the virus will give birth to babies with birth defects. But they do know that the earlier in pregnancy that a woman is infected, the spectrum of birth defects is broader. In addition to microcephaly, premature birth and blindness are new defects noted by the CDC.
Doctors have long known that Zika, which has been documented since 1947, is also linked to Guillan-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis. A new study released this month links Zika to another autoimmune disorder called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which mimics the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Other new research shows that Zika appears to target and kill brain cells.
And, they say, the Aedes aegypti mosquito species that can carry the virus is “present in all or part of 30 states,” not just 12 states like originally thought, so the potential for outbreaks is much farther north than previously expected. Common symptoms of the virus include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.
Earlier this month, President Obama notified Congress that it was reallocating more than $510 million that had been earmarked for aiding Ebola eradication efforts in Africa, shifting it to Zika prevention and research. The CDC is giving $3.9 million in emergency funding to Puerto Rico alone, where the number of cases is doubling every week.
No vaccine currently exists to protect against the Zika virus, so the CDC recommends vigilance to prevent mosquito bites: wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants; staying in air conditioned areas or screened indoor spaces to keep mosquitos outside; using insect repellent. The CDC says that mosquitos carrying Zika typically bite during the day, and can also carry dengue and chikungunya viruses.