To reassure listeners in a real-time telebriefing, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and an affiliated institute recently conducted an up-to-the-minute discussion of the critical Zika virus infection from Atlanta, Georgia, and Rockville, Maryland.
The CDC’s Tom Skinner hosted the session with Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, and Dr. Tony Fauci, director of the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Both provided opening remarks about the Zika outbreak before fielding questions from listeners.
Schuchat reassured the audience up front that the organizations were working diligently to understand and hopefully conquer the outbreak.
“We know many people are concerned or scared, and we want to answer your questions with what we do know now,” she said. “Zika is not a new virus, but what we are seeing in the Americas right now is new.”
Schuchat explained that, prior to this outbreak, the illness was only seen occasionally in Africa and Asia.
The first South American case was reported by the WHO in Brazil in May 2015. Authorities recognize Zika as a mosquito-borne illness, with evidence strongly suggesting that it affects pregnant women by impacting newborns with microcephaly. Brazilian authorities initially reported over 3500 cases.
With confirmed cases in 20 Latin American nations and two U.S. territories — Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — all instances have involved travel to an affected country.
Schuchat stressed that while no local transmission has occurred in the continental U.S., the disease carried by the Aedes mosquito could appear; however, the nation has strong deterrents in place, including air conditioning and advanced mosquito control.
“Of course, this virus is fairly new to the Americas and we will remain vigilant,” she said, noting that travel alerts and specialized advice geared towards pregnant women have been issued, with recommendations to avoid travel.
Fauci added that NIAID researchers are working on diagnostic tools and vaccines to prevent the Zika virus infection.
“We need to look at Zika virus in its context as the latest in a series of mosquito-borne diseases,” he said. “There will be others.”
Pertinent questions in the dial-in conversation focused on the impact of climate change on the outbreak’s advent and whether El Nino’s heavy rains would spike mosquito breeding. Schuchat classified this as a minimal concern, stating that surveillance and documentation are of greater significance to the disease’s outcome.
“We do think the living conditions in general in the United States -- the lack of urban density in those areas where the mosquitoes (are) circulating and the air-conditions and screens -- will hopefully keep us in better shape compared with what's beginning in some of the hot spots in South America or the Caribbean,” Schuchat said.