After touring Zika response efforts in Puerto Rico for the first half of this week, Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden said the outbreak is a crisis that must be addressed.
CDC experts say that the disease could infect as many as one in five people in Puerto Rico with new cases already doubling every week. With a population of around 3.5 million, that could add up to about 700,000 people.
Are the Virgin Islands expected to see rates of infection as high as in Puerto Rico?
When asked directly about this during a press briefing Thursday, Frieden said that the pace of new infections would likely be slower in the Virgin Islands due to the territory’s lower population density.
Jessica Schindelar, a communications specialist for the CDC’s Zika Emergency Operations Center based on St. Croix, said the Puerto Rican estimate is based on how previous mosquito-borne disease outbreaks unfolded.
Puerto Rico has had four large outbreaks of dengue with the most recent one occurring in 2010 when nearly 27,000 suspected cases were reported. In 2012 the Virgin Islands reported a total of 69 suspected and confirmed cases of dengue.
“Dengue and chikungunya all caused high rates of illness in Puerto Rico during prior outbreaks and so we anticipate Zika will follow a similar pattern there,” Schindelar said.
“We are not able to predict how Zika will affect the Virgin Islands,” Schindelar said.
There have been seven confirmed cases of Zika in territory, all of which occurred on St. Croix, though there are reported cases pending lab results from St. Thomas and St John. To date, no pregnant women have been infected with Zika in the territory.
As of the territory’s weekly surveillance report that was released Tuesday, a total of 75 cases of Zika have been reported throughout the territory so far with 65 of them pending lab results.
Some national media outlets have speculated that many Puerto Ricans have grown accustomed to mosquito-borne diseases and might not be taking Zika seriously, but Schindelar and Frieden said that the local health department and the island’s people are responding aggressively to the outbreak.
Frieden said that the pregnant women he met are very aware about the danger of Zika and willing to take all available precautions to prevent getting mosquito bites.
Schindelar said, “There may be some complacency for mosquito-borne illnesses here [Virgin Islands], but we are doing extensive community outreach to educate the public about the importance of taking precautions to prevent mosquito bites in order to prevent Zika.”
The Source also asked Frieden about the threat of Zika spreading to more places like the mainland U.S., given there are so many travelers coming to and going from vacation destinations like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Frieden explained that 40 million people in the U.S. travel to Zika-affected countries and territories every year, so discouraging travel, unless a woman is pregnant, really isn’t a logical option. Instead people should be taking preventative measures.
The CDC is encouraging men who have traveled to places where Zika is present to wear condoms when having sex with pregnant women, since Zika can be sexually transmitted and potentially infect unborn babies.
Health scientists are still researching the likely link between Zika and microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with smaller than normal heads.
According to Schindelar, Puerto Rico has halted all local blood donations and is importing blood supplies from the U.S. mainland. She added that the majority of the blood supplies in the Virgin Islands are already imported but that the minimal local donations have been stopped.
During the press briefing, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, said that a Zika vaccine is still likely a couple years away, since it will need to go through rigorous testing.
Fauci explained that clinical testing could begin as early as this fall but that making sure the vaccine is safe and effective will take more time.
Until a vaccine is available, the CDC will work to keep pregnant women safe and transmission rates as low as possible by educating the public to take precautionary measures like wear long sleeves, use insect repellent and have screens on windows.