Nine cases of the Zika virus have been reported in New Jersey — out of more than 350 nationwide — including three that have been identified in the past two weeks. The most recent case, a 49-year-old woman from Camden County who traveled to Puerto Rico, was confirmed late Monday, according to state health officials.
In each case, the infection originated abroad, state and federal officials said — not from mosquitos in North America — and the symptoms have generally been mild. But the type of mosquito that carries the virus, which researchers recently confirmed can cause a devastating birth defect to the brain, has visited the Garden State in the past and might even settle down in the region. Aedes aegypti does not now live in the state.
The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention released maps earlier this month that showed the insect’s range could potentially extend to New Jersey, the southern tip of New York State, and along the Connecticut coastline; a similar range is predicted for its “cousin,” Aedes albopictus, which may also play a role in transmitting Zika.
Officials stressed that these maps should not be interpreted as predictions the disease will spread to these locations, and some believe it’s unlikely we will see homegrown cases anytime soon.
“This is an important public health issue for pregnant women and women of childbearing age traveling to affected countries,” acting Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett told members of the Assembly and Senate budget committees earlier this week, highlighting the aggressive public relations campaign — #ZapZika — outreach to providers and other department efforts to get ahead of the virus. The DOH recently sent half a dozen experts to the CDC’s Zika Summit in Atlanta.
With one-in-five New Jersey residents born overseas — many of whom return for visits — a “travelers’ disease” like Zika can also have an impact here at home, she said. “It is something from a traveler’s perspective that we are concerned about,” Bennett said.
Luckily, the department’s experience with other types of travellers’ diseases has helped them be prepared for Zika. Every year, officials confirm cases of dengue fever or chickungunya, but have yet to see these diseases become established locally. DOH epidemiologist Shereen Semple has said they believe Zika will follow the same pattern.
The health department has also partnered with the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System to create a public call center staffed by multilingual experts available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (The hotline number: 1-800-962-1253.) The DOH is also working to enable its lab to test for Zika in New Jersey; currently, samples are sent to a CDC facility for screening.
Zika is not new; it was first found in the Americas in 2015, when it showed up in Brazil. It has since spread to more than 40 countries across Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. While it causes only mild symptoms in adults — fever, rash, swelling, painful joints — the concern for pregnant women, or those looking to have children, is significant.
Last week, the CDC confirmed what had long been suspected: The virus can indeed cause microcephaly, a condition that leaves a baby’s head far smaller than is healthy — and also results in a smaller brain. The disorder can lead to significant developmental delays, sensory difficulties, and intellectual disabilities.
“This is a study that marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said when the news was released. “There are no changes in the CDC guidelines as a result of this analysis, but it does reiterate the urgency of our response. There are still many unknowns, but the study marks an important development in the Zika outbreak. Never before have we seen an illness threat by mosquitos linked to a birth defect.”
The virus is spread primarily through bites from an infected mosquito, although researchers have also found it can be transmitted through some sexual acts. The CDC issued new guidelines in March for women and their partners who are considering pregnancy, but researchers stress there is much to learn still about the disease.