While New Jersey is home to the first baby born in the continental United States with Zika-linked microcephaly and 18 cases of the virus have been diagnosed in the state, doctors say that for nearly all residents there is little cause to worry.
On Tuesday, doctors at Hackensack University Medical Center delivered the baby with microcephaly, a condition that causes an abnormally small head and severe mental and physical disabilities. In January a baby in Hawaii was the first in the United States to be born with the disease.
On Wednesday state officials announced there have now been 18 individuals in New Jersey — more than a third of them in Bergen County — confirmed to have contracted the Zika virus while traveling overseas. A week ago the count was at 16 confirmed diagnoses in New Jersey, out of more than 590 nationwide.
Zika transmitted by mosquitoes has been found in more than 40 countries across Central and South America, and the Caribbean and in Puerto Rico, but has not yet been found in insects in the continental United States and Canada. The infection causes no or mild symptoms in adults, including fever, rash, and swelling, but has attracted growing attention over the past year, as scientists began to connect the infection to microcephaly. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the link in April.
Experts note that while the disease is becoming more visible here at home, Zika is unlikely to take a direct toll on most New Jersey residents. “The effects are really inconsequential, unless you’re going to have a baby,” explained Dr. Ronald G. Nahass, an epidemiologist and certified infectious disease expert affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
That said, scientists are discovering new things about the virus regularly– especially when it comes to sexual transmission. Last week, the CDC recommended that men who have traveled to a country with Zika use protection during sex for eight weeks after returning to ensure they don’t pass the disease to their female partners; infected men should abstain or use condoms for six months.
CDC officials concede there is still a great deal to learn about the disease and its transmission, including how women can pass the infection to male or female sex partners, how oral sex could be a factor, or if Zika also lives in saliva and could be passed through kissing. “We are probably going to learn more over the next several months,” Nahass said. “I can’t image that we’re near the end of the learning curve.”
For Zika to become a health concern in New Jersey, like West Nile did nearly a decade ago, enough people have to be actively infected during mosquito season to transmit the virus to the insect population. Mosquitoes can carry the virus for up to 30 days, passing it on to those they bite, experts said.
“The concern is, as with other mosquito-borne illness, if the reservoir of human infection gets to a certain point you will have a self-sustaining epidemic,” Nahass said. But with only 18 cases to date, we’re not at that critical mass yet. “It’s sporadic, a case here and a case there,” he added, noting that, with one in five residents born abroad, “we have lots of people who are traveling back and forth.”
Zika is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which thrives in warm southern temperatures but will also tolerate the climate in some if not all of New Jersey and southern New York, according to the CDC. A “cousin,” Aedes albopictus, which makes its home throughout the Northeast, may also play a role in transmitting the virus.
In addition to tracking the infection, the state Department of Health has been working for months to inform the public about the disease and what people can do to protect themselves if they are traveling to a Zika-infected country. The department recently extended its radio and print ad campaign, in English and Spanish, into September, and posts regular updates on its social media feeds.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.