This represents the fourth time that CDC’s command center has declared a Level 1 alert. The other emergencies were Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 flu threat in 2009 and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. During emergencies, the command center is staffed by a shifting cast of experts in fields required for the current emergency. In this case, the agency has called together more than 300 experts in insect-borne viruses, reproductive health and birth and developmental defects.
So far, 50 cases been identified in the U.S., with several in Texas, Illinois, California and Washington, D.C. Five days ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties, where health officials have diagnosed nine cases of Zika virus in travelers returning from Zika-affected areas.Nikos Vasilakis, an associate professor of pathology at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and an arbovirus researcher at Galveston National Laboratory, calls the agency’s decision significant because it reflects CDC’s concern about potential Zika virus transmission in the U.S.
“Once Zika got a foothold in Brazil, it spread like wildfire through Latin America, the Caribbean and Central America. Now it’s on our doorstep,” Vasilakis says. “There’s a lot of traffic between the U.S. and many countries in Latin America. If an infected individual ends up on our shores, it’s quite possible they could infect local mosquitoes and start a transmission cycle in the U.S., especially the southern U.S.”
“We already had three dozen infected individuals in the U.S. Starting in late March and April, when the weather becomes hotter and more rainy, the mosquito population will greatly increase in the Gulf states, increasing the risk,” he says.
The CDC scientists are collaborating with local, national and international partners to study the virus, track its spread, assess the accuracy of Zika-related data and exchange information about the pandemic as it evolves. Command center personnel also have the resources to ship diagnostic kits, samples and specimens and emergency-response personnel to Zika hotspots.
CDC epidemiologists are now fanning out to Puerto Rico and Brazil, to bolster the teams already in those countries, and to Columbia, to respond to a request to study reports of birth defects that may be related to Zika virus. There are no confirmed cases of microcephaly in Colombia, Skinner says.
Since it was first identified in Brazil last May, the virus has spread to more than 25 countries and territories in the Americas and Caribbean. It has been linked with a neurological ailment, called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and at least 4,000 cases of a devastating birth defect, microcephaly. Babies born with microcephaly have malformed craniums and smaller brains, which often leads to lifelong cognitive impairment and disability.
The agency is:
• Developing better and cheaper laboratory tests to diagnose Zika.
• Studying possible linkages with microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
• Enhancing surveillance for the virus in the United States, including U.S. territories.
• Providing on-the-ground support in Puerto Rico, Brazil and Colombia.
On Friday, Dallas County Health and Human Services reported the first confirmed case of local Zika transmission in a patient who became infected through sexual contact with a partner who had recently returned from a Zika-affected country.
Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report
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