Florida Governor Rick Scott has declared a Zika-related public health emergency in five counties—Miami-Dade, Broward (Fort Lauderdale area), Hillsborough (Tampa area), Lee (Fort Myers area), and Santa Rosa (western Panhandle), citing confirmation of at least 12 cases of the virus. All of the cases are travel-related, i.e., the virus was contracted outside of the state, and the number is expected to rise over the next few days.
The emergency order directs health and agricultural authorities to implement stringent mosquito control activities (spraying, removal of standing water, etc.) in all residential areas in those counties and to use any other measures deemed necessary to limit mosquito habitats.
Said the governor: “[…] we have to ensure Florida is prepared and stays ahead of the Zika virus in our state.”
His announcement is expected to be followed by similar actions in other states where Aedes aegypti (the mosquito species known to transmit the Zika virus) is active, namely Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and southern Arizona (Tucson area).
As of Friday, February 5, 54 cases of Zika virus had been confirmed in 13 states plus the District of Columbia; virtually all of them involved individuals who recently returned from countries where the Zika virus is known to have been transmitted locally and where Aedes aegypti is the active vector of transmission.
However, at least one case of sexually transmitted infection in Texas has public health officials across the U.S. particularly concerned because such transmission could expand the Zika threat beyond the areas in which the Aedes aegypti mosquito is active. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the only countries in the Americas free of this mosquito species are Canada and Chile.
So what does this expansion of Zika mean to Canadians?
First of all, it does not justify panic. And it doesn’t mean you should disrupt your travel plans, although pregnant or pre-pregnant women (women who might become pregnant) need to take certain precautions.
In itself, Zika virus infection is a minimal event, manifesting in only 20 to 25 per cent of those infected, and even then it usually generates only mild flu-like symptoms, muscle aches, transitory conjunctivitis, and headaches. It typically lasts three to seven days and rarely requires hospitalization. Treatment of the symptoms is all that’s needed.
That said, if the infected person is a pregnant woman, the risk factors escalate.
As we have outlined in our previous articles, there is convincing evidence coming out of over 20 countries in the Americas of a link between Zika virus infection and the birth of newborns with unusually small heads and possible brain damage. There are also rising concerns that the virus may be connected to an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome (an immune system disease), but this link has yet to be confirmed.
As a result of these reports, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has advised pregnant or pre-pregnant women to consider postponing travel to areas where the Zika virus is circulating or, if travel cannot be postponed, to follow strict mosquito-control precautions.
Warnings also issued for blood donors
The PHAC has also announced that anyone who has travelled outside of Canada, the continental United States, and Europe will now be temporarily ineligible to give blood for three weeks. Twenty-one days is considered the maximum life span the Zika virus can circulate in one’s body, and that gives some indication how long after returning from travel the traveller’s sexual partner is at risk for infection.
The mosquito—the Aedes aegypti species, specifically—is the key link in these unfolding events. Fortunately, Aedes aegypti (the same pest that carries yellow fever) is not present in Canada, so the possibility of local transmission once an infected traveller returns home to Canada or the northern U.S. is limited. Or so it was thought until last week, when a case of sexually transmitted Zika virus was reported in Texas between a man (the recipient) and an infected woman who had just returned from South America. Consequently, the threat of transmission may be magnified, but still limited to sexual transmission between infected persons and only for a short period of time coincident with the life span of the virus in the carrier’s body.
We’ll be reporting on this development as more becomes available from official sources. Stay with us.
If you have any questions about travel to Zika-prone areas, let us know. We’ll answer what we can or refer you to other sources you can rely on.
Heading south? Do not forget your travel insurance.