The Zika virus has not invaded New Jersey and is unlikely to do so anytime soon. But with the state’s highly mobile and diverse population - one in five state residents are foreign-born - there is a real potential the disease could hitch a ride into the Garden State with an unsuspecting traveler returning from abroad.
These demographics prompted acting state Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett to launch a multilingual public-outreach campaign to help New Jersey’s citizens understand the potential danger Zika poses and how to avoid exposure to the mosquitoes that transmit the disease.
The #ZapZika campaign involves social media, radio and print advertisements, and a series of four open meetings in communities with large immigrant populations or other people likely to visit the dozens of countries where the virus now exists. The list includes Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mexico, and many nations in Central and South America.
“Our goal is to make sure that all New Jerseyans who are traveling are aware of Zika and what they can do to minimize their risks,” Bennett told students and visitors Thursday at Montclair State University during the first public meeting on the outbreak. “Otherwise, we will have residents coming back to the state with the virus.”
The health department chose to kick off its campaign at the university largely because the school is poised to to send more than a dozen graduate business students on a two-week trip to Brazil, the current epicenter of the Zika outbreak. The annual trip is a “leading feature” of the school’s Masters in Business Administration program, said Provost Willard Gingerich, and “obviously (Zika) is something we have to take seriously.”
Zika is a viral infection spread by the bites of a specific mosquito that doesn’t live in the Northeast, Bennett said. But the disease’s arrival last spring in Brazil – the first time it showed up in the Western Hemisphere – has sparked significant concern.
While Zika itself results in fairly minor flu-like symptoms in adults, the infection in unborn babies has been connected to microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that leads to lifelong problems.
The virus has existed for decades in Africa and parts of Asia, but only recently showed up in the Americas. Since the outbreak in Brazil, it has spread to 36 countries in the Western Hemisphere – as of Monday.
Bennett stressed that the nationalposts updated information on the virus and its spread to its website almost daily.
So far, health officials have confirmed that two New Jersey residents have tested positive for the virus. A Bergen County woman working in Colombia was treated for symptoms when she returned home around Thanksgiving. In February, tests confirmed a Hudson County woman had contracted the disease on a trip to Honduras. Both women have recovered, officials said; it has not been made public if the women were pregnant or looking to have children soon.
New Jersey is protected against a wider outbreak in part by its climate, Bennett said, but also because of our history of aggressive mosquito control. The prevalence of air-conditioning and window screens also helps, as does a proactive public health strategy to warn people of the dangers involved. The only way to protect against Zika is to avoid getting bitten by an infected mosquito, she said.
“We don’t expect to see a widespread outbreak in the continental U.S.,” Bennett said. “If we do see an outbreak, it would be localized,” she added, noting that it is more likely to impact a state like Florida, with lots of standing water to breed mosquitoes.
That said, CDC scientists are now studying a ‘cousin’ of the known Zika-carrying mosquito to determine if this, too, can transmit the virus; this relative is local to New Jersey, Bennett noted.
State epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan said there is no vaccine or drug to protect against Zika. She stressed the need to wear long sleeves and to use bug spray, applied according to direction. Pregnant women, or those looking to have children soon, should consider postponing their trip to an outbreak area or should be extra careful if they must go.
Tan said the virus can only be transmitted from person to person by blood and possibly other fluids, like semen. Travelers are asked to wait at least 20 days before giving blood when they return and men are encouraged to wear condoms if they have visited a country with Zika. Tan urged caution, stressing that research on the disease is ongoing and many questions remain.
“Just like with any other travel illness, if you are informed you can take precautions and minimize your risk,” Bennett said.
Zika’s “meaning is a lot greater if you’re pregnant” or about to have children, she added.
The experience public-health providers have had dealing with other mosquito-borne viruses, like dengue fever and chikungunya, prepares health officials for addressing Zika, Tan added. Those diseases have also been largely limited to travelers returning from abroad and didn’t result in widespread outbreaks.
The department is also dispersing information directly to healthcare professionals. Through a series of conference calls, Bennett said they have already connected with more than 1,000 public health officials, maternal care experts and other providers; another 350 participated in a webinar about the virus.
“We want to start a conversation about ‘what is the Zika virus, what does it mean for your patients, and what does it mean for your patients who are traveling’,” Bennett said. “And there are an awful lot of questions.”
Donna Barry, director of the Montclair State University health center, said the school was a perfect spot for Bennett to kick off the public meeting portion of the. MSU has a diverse student population, Barry said, and the health center does regular screenings of travelers returning from abroad and launched its own Zika outreach campaign earlier this year.
Next week, the Department of Health will continue these public events with three other meetings in communities chosen for their significant immigrant populations. On Monday, it will host meetings at health centers in Newark and Belleville; on Wednesday, officials will gather at a community organization in West New York. Meeting details and information about the #ZapZika campaign are posted on the department’s website in English and Spanish. Messages aimed to engage different age groups and nationalities are also shared on the department’s social media feeds onand .