In a conference call briefing Thursday, he joined Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the latest information on the virus.
Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also causes the dengue and chikungunya viruses. A very mild disease, Zika causes symptoms only in roughly 25 percent of those infected, and even then the illness is rarely severe.
What’s troubling with this epidemic is the increasing number of cases of microcephaly – smaller heads and brains – in Brazilian newborns whose mothers might have been infected with Zika, coupled with an increase in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a potentially fatal condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves.
“There is a strong link with some of these pregnancy actors, but there may be other factors” Schuchat said.
The CDC has an alert team on the ground in Brazil, but so far they cannot establish that Zika was the cause of the approximately 3,448 cases of microcephaly diagnosed so far, she said. Brazil normally has about 156 cases of microcephaly annually.
Schuchat recommends that pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where the disease is rapidly spreading. So far, Brazil and Colombia are the only two countries reporting large numbers of cases, but she expects that number to increase. There is also some concern with the Olympics set to start in Rio de Janeiro in August. That area of Brazil has so far reported 122 cases of microcephaly that might be tied to Zika, and is likely to receive large numbers of visitors.
So far, the U.S. has only recorded 31 cases of Zika across 11 states and the District of Columbia. However, none of those cases were acquired locally. They were infected elsewhere.
Priorities now include both the active monitoring of the disease and continued research of both Zika itself, its transmission and its link to neurological disorders. Schuchat also stressed the importance of looking out for birth defects.
“We are pursuing two different approaches to vaccine development,” Fauci said. “But it is very unlikely we’ll see a safe and widely available vaccine within the next two years.”
A clinical trial may start this year.
Fauci stressed that, for the moment, U.S. residents face no risk. Even though the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the virus is present in some parts of the country, the CDC and the NIAID predict from their experience with dengue and chikungunya outbreaks that the U.S. will see limited clusters of locally transmitted Zika only along southern states such as Florida and Texas.
“We don’t have the same densely populated urban areas that make transmission so easy in South America” Schuchat said.
Mosquito control mechanisms, lower mosquito populations, and the widespread presence of screens and air conditioning will help prevent transmission. Fauci said that although the widely spread mosquito Aedes albopictus is a potential carrier, it’s important to know no link has been proven so far.
In Latin America, local governments have begun urging women to postpone pregnancy until more is known. The World Health Organization called for an emergency committee to meet Feb. 1, to discuss the Zika virus and its potential link with neurological disorders and neonatal malformations.
Reach reporter Karina Meier at email@example.com or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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