Federal officials are investigating how two Florida residents became infected with the Zika virus — without having traveled to a country where the mosquito-borne illness is rampant. While no insects in the continental United States have yet been found to carry the disease, reports last week of these two cases raised new concerns for public health officials about the potential impact Zika could have in the U.S.
Infectious disease experts in New Jersey have underscored how the mosquito responsible for spreading Zika lives in tropical climates – like that in Florida – and, while it has visited the Garden State, it can’t survive the harsher winters in the north. That hasn’t stopped the state Department of Environmental Protection from beefing up support of the 21 county mosquito control commissions with $500,000 in grants and other assets, including hundreds of thousands of fish bred to eat mosquito larvae.
And on Friday, the state received nearly $2.5 million] from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help with surveillance, investigation, laboratory work, and additional mosquito control, among other things. The funding, to be available August 1, was part of $60 million allocated nationwide for Zika prevention. (New Jersey will also receive nearly $2 million more for work on other diseases through the 2016 Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity program grant.)
Discovered more than half a century ago in Africa, Zika first surfaced in the Americas in 2015, in Brazil. It is now carried by mosquitoes in dozens of countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Some people who contract the disease have only mild, flu-like symptoms and most have no sign at all; but the danger can be severe for women who are pregnant, or who want to become pregnant. Mothers infected with Zika can have babies with microcephaly, a severe condition that restricts the skull’s growth and often leads to profound and lifelong disabilities.
More than 1,400 people nationwide have contracted the disease, all – until the recent Florida cases – while traveling abroad. New Jersey has recorded 61 cases as of last week, an increase of 10 over the previous week. Experts have said these numbers are not surprising, given how some 20 percent of the state’s population is foreign-born and likely to travel to countries where the disease may be active.
The Garden State hosted the first Zika-affected baby born in the continental U.S., when a mother who had contracted the disease while abroad gave birth at Hackensack University Medical Center this spring.
The CDC funding will be used to support a national system to track infected women and their impacted children. Last month the federal agency also doled out $25 million to help states prepare their public health networks to deal with the potential threat. Of that, $424,000 went to New Jersey’s Department of Health to help support its public outreach efforts, including the #ZapZika social media campaign, communications with healthcare providers, and to help fund laboratory work. The CDC said it will distribute another $10 million in August to help states assist families dealing with babies born with microcephaly.
While the state health department has played the lead role in coordinating the outreach and public health response, mosquito control – handled largely by county and local agencies – falls under the Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to the grants, which pay for supplies, staffing and more, and the larvae-eating fish, which will be deployed in standing water over the summer, the DEP is providing each county a pair of motorized mosquito traps and 1,000 “mosquito dunks” – tablets that will kill the larvae without harming a waterway’s ecology.
“While the presence of the mosquito that carries the Zika virus is extremely rare in New Jersey, we are taking every precaution to protect our residents and visitors from this and other disease-carrying mosquitos,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said when announcing the effort in late June. “The Christie Administration is committed to providing our county mosquito control partners with the best possible means to monitor and reduce mosquito populations throughout the state.”
CDC leaders have called repeatedly on the Republican-led Congress to approve a request from President Barack Obama for an additional $1.9 billion to protect the American public and help prepare a vaccine. In New Jersey, Democratic lawmakers sought to add $5 million to the current budget to help local communities address Zika, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie eliminated that line item when he signed the plan into law on June 30.
There is currently no treatment for Zika. The only methods of prevention are to reduce the numbers of disease-carrying mosquitoes – by, for example, eliminating standing water, where larvae breed – and to protect against mosquito bites. The virus can also be passed through semen and other body fluids; men who have visited countries where the disease is active should use condoms for several months after their return, and for at least six months if they tested positive for Zika.
Unless you are pregnant, or looking to have a child, being around someone with Zika is not a serious threat, state health department officials noted in the “Zika Basics Slide Show” posted on their website. “Zika is not an airborne disease and cannot be spread through coughing, sneezing or talking,” it states. “You cannot catch Zika through the air.”
However, officials continue to stress that basic protections make sense – especially for those traveling overseas. “As mosquito season continues in New Jersey and families travel this summer, residents should protect themselves from mosquito bites wherever they go,” state health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett said earlier this month. She urged travelers to wear appropriate insect repellent and long pants and sleeves – and to stay up-to-date with information from the state or the CDC, as news on the Zika outbreak continues to evolve.