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Update Jan. 15: The CDC has issued travel alerts for Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America, warning women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant to avoid travel to places with Zika virus.
Doctors have diagnosed a woman in the Houston area with the tropical mosquito-borne Zika virus. It is not known where she contracted the virus, but officials believe it likely happened during a recent visit to El Salvador.
The Zika virus first appeared in South America about eight months ago and it has since spread to 14 countries in the Western Hemisphere. While it typically only results in rash, fever and joint pain, experts warn that pregnant women with the virus appear to be more likely to have children with microcephaly, a condition in which a child’s head is smaller than normal and the brain is damaged.
Dr. Ernesto Marques of the University of Pittsburgh studies the disease and is researching vaccines. He joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young with more details.
What exactly is the Zika virus?
“Zika is a virus of the same family as West Nile, Dengue and Yellow fever virus. It’s a very small virus and in an adult is very mild. The main issue we are just realizing is the infection of pregnant women during early stages of pregnancy that can result in horrible anomalies to the fetus and to the baby.”
So people cannot die from the virus, but it poses serious threats to babies in-utero
“Brain, eyes, hearing, there are all kinds of malformations that we are just starting to identify associated with this congenital disease.”
How is it spread?
“The Aedes aegypti mosquito seems to be the main infecter, but there are other means of transmission that are being investigated as well; sexual transmission and potentially other mosquito infecters as well.”
Is there concern that the disease could be spread further?
“Mosquitos don’t fly thousands of miles, but cargo does. Mosquitos can be transported by several means, so it will spread.”
Aside from preventing mosquito bites, is there a type of vaccine to combat this virus?
“No, we knew very little about the Zika virus until now. The virus was not on anyone’s list for developing vaccines. We often believe that these viruses exist solely in jungles and bushes and they will never hurt us, but often they do.”