The V.I. Department of Health confirmed the first case of Zika virus in the territory Friday in a 42-year-old woman on St. Croix.
The case was locally transmitted, since the woman had not recently traveled outside the territory. This means the disease is now present in mosquitoes on St. Croix and that more people are likely to become infected.
After being found in Puerto Rico earlier this month, local health professionals began sending suspected cases to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for testing. The CDC also retested all recently submitted cases that tested negative for dengue and chikungunya for Zika, but none of those samples tested positive for the virus.
“It takes about two weeks for us to get results from the CDC,” said Dr. Esther Ellis, the V.I. Department of Health’s epidemiologist. If the blood sample is taken within five days of the person being infected, the virus can be tested for directly, but after that time period lengthier antibody tests must be done.
Ellis said that Health expects there to be more confirmed cases in the territory soon. She said the department has sent more suspected case samples to the CDC from all three islands, but those results will be pending for another two weeks.
“When chikungunya first came to St. Thomas two years ago, it took a couple months to spread to St. Croix, but we’re not sure what timeframe to expect with Zika,” Ellis said.
The fact that there’s a confirmed case of Zika and there haven’t been any recent ones for dengue or chikungunya makes Ellis think Zika is the likelier cause of the suspected cases.
Zika is carried in the human bloodstream for about five days. The disease spreads when mosquitoes bite someone who was recently infected after being in a place where the virus is already present in mosquito populations.
Since only one in five people experience symptoms when they have Zika, it’s difficult to stop transmission, since most people aren’t aware they have it. Its most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, but can also include muscle pain, headache, pain behind the eyes and vomiting.
Zika’s symptoms are generally milder than dengue fever’s and hospitalization is uncommon. To date, the Zika virus has not caused any deaths.
Ellis added that the Zika virus is spread by the same type of mosquitoes as dengue and chikungunya, known as aedes aegypti, but that the virus stays present in the blood for a shorter time that the other two. That leaves less time for the mosquito to bite an infected person and spread the Zika virus to others.
Unlike the mosquitoes that carry malaria, which aren’t present in the territory, the types that carries Zika bites primarily during the day.
“These mosquitoes are adapted to urban environments, so they breed in and around the home. They don’t like dirty water and they can reproduce in containers that are as small as a water bottle cap,” Ellis said.
The spread of the disease has caused recent alarm in Brazil and elsewhere, due to the possible link between infected pregnant women and microcephaly, a birth defect that causes children to be born with smaller than average heads and brains, usually resulting in an intellectual disability. So far, a few thousand babies have been born with the condition in Brazil.
“We have conducted trainings at both hospitals and have been working with providers to identify the symptoms of the Zika Virus.We also want to stress to all pregnant women to seek medical attention in the event that you are experiencing any symptoms and use all means to prevent mosquito bites,” Ellis said in a press release issued by Health Friday.
Currently there is no treatment for Zika other then rest, fluids and use of analgesics and antipyretics, but pregnant women suffering from fever should be treated with acetaminophen.
Since no vaccine or preventive drug is available, the best way to prevent getting Zika is to avoid mosquito bites, use air conditioning or window and door screens when indoors, wear long sleeves and pants and use insect repellents when outdoors.
Health encourages people with symptoms to consult a medical physician. For any questions regarding testing or reporting cases of Zika, please call 340-718-1311.