State may face threat of mosquito-borne Zika

As the Zika virus makes headlines around the world, its impacts are beginning to be felt in the U.S. with California in particular perhaps feeling its presence in the coming months and years, as the mosquitoes that transmit the disease have been documented here since 2011.

There have already been 153 cases reported in the U.S., and the one known case of sexual transmission was documented in Dallas, according to Breitbart News, but as of March 4, eight people have been diagnosed with Zika in California. All of them contracted it abroad, though the threat of contracting it domestically is growing.

The yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti aegypti) is one of two species known to carry Zika, as well as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Normally distributed in the tropics and subtropics, they are now found in southern California. Photo courtesy of vectorbase.org.

The yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti aegypti) is one of two species known to carry Zika, as well as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Photo courtesy of vectorbase.org.

The disease is strongly correlated with severe birth defects, and pregnant women are advised to be careful when traveling to afflicted regions, mainly in many Latin American countries.

Anna Hargadon, for instance, a cousin of CHS senior Jack Ellison, is one pregnant woman whose travel plans have directly been affected by the Zika outbreak.

“I’m still up in the air about our trip,” the 27-year-old says of her planned vacation in Puerto Rico. “I don’t know if it’s worth the risk.”

The disease normally has few symptoms beyond those of the common flu, but it started gaining attention last year when it became associated with escalating rates of microcephaly in Brazil.

“The information about Zika is evolving rapidly,” explains Cybèle Renault, a clinical professor at Stanford University who specializes in infectious diseases. “In fact, its association with microcephaly was thought to be questionable until an article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine late last week.”

Besides microcephaly—a potentially life-threatening condition in which infants are born with abnormally small skulls and reduced neurological function—Zika has also been linked to miscarriages and a rare immune system disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

“I think the full magnitude is still hard to say,” CHS AP Biology teacher Darrell Steely says. “There’s a lot [we] don’t know.”

While for the moment Zika remains largely confined to countries south of the border, many predict its effects will be exacerbated by climate change, globalization, international travel and even the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

But unlike places like Mexico and Brazil, where medical infrastructure may not be prepared to handle Zika’s economic and social consequences, combatting the disease in California may simply come down to education and preventive behaviors.

Steely explains that it would not be difficult for Zika to come to California to stay: “All [the mosquitoes] need [to do] is bite an infected person, and then they’re able to transmit it somewhere else.”

This type of infection is called local transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and while it hasn’t yet occurred in California, the two mosquito species that are vectors for the virus have already been documented in southern California. Indeed, Zika cases have come as close to home as San Francisco.

Currently there is no vaccine, so the only method of prevention is avoiding mosquito bites, as stated on the CDC’s website.

For those planning to visit Latin American countries where Zika is emergent, the CDC provides up-to-date travel and health information on its website, Cdc.gov.

-Michael Montgomery