LUMBERTON — The director for the Robeson County Health Department says local residents need not worry about the Zika virus anytime soon, but it could be a threat down the road.
“Now that it’s being transmitted in Florida, you’ll see it creeping up the map,” Bill Smith said Thursday during a Health Board meeting. “The longer it takes, the better off we will be. At the rate it’s going now, it won’t be transmitted in North Carolina for one or two more years, and they’re working on a vaccine.”
As of Wednesday, there were no locally-acquired cases of the Zika virus in North Carolina, but there were 36 travel-related cases, meaning a person contracted the virus elsewhere before returning to North Carolina. Within the United States, 2,517 cases have been reported, but only 29 of those have been locally acquired, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Locally-transmitted cases of the virus have been identified in Miami, Fla., but a case identified this week in Tampa Bay, Fla., shows the virus is sneaking northward.
Dr. Obiefuna Okoye, medical director of Infectious Diseases for Southeastern Health, said that no travel-related Zika cases have been reported in Robeson County. Southeastern Health employees are continuing to keep their eyes on updates from the Centers for Disease Control to stay informed.
“The CDC is a wonderful organization and is putting out guidance for what to look for,” Okoye said. “The symptoms, for example, are non-specific, like fevers, headaches, rashes, joint pain and conjunctivitis.”
Because those symptoms are common, Okoye advises anyone presenting them who has traveled to areas where the virus is prominent, like South America, should visit their medical provider. Okoye said a patient can be tested for Zika through a simple blood or urine test. The CDC is currently working on a vaccination, which Okoye said would be similar to the one for the flu.
According to the World Health Organization, the Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and was first identified in monkeys living in Uganda in 1947 and in humans in 1952. The first large outbreak of the virus occurred in 2007 on the Island of Yap. The virus has been linked to birth defects, meaning pregnant women are most at risk.
Since its discovery, scientists have found that the Zika virus can also be transmitted through sex. On Friday, the FDA asked all U.S. blood banks to screen blood for the virus.
“In most people, you get it and you get better, but if you’re a female and you’re pregnant, it has been that it can be passed onto the baby and cause them to develop complications when they’re born,” Okoye said.
In July 2015, Zika was linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition that causes a person’s immune system to attack their peripheral nerves. It is most common in adults and in males, and those with the condition generally recover fully, even in the most severe cases. But, in rare cases, Guillain-Barré syndrome can result in near-total paralysis.
In October 2015, it was found that the Zika virus can affect the unborn child of an infected mother, causing the child to be born with microcephaly —a condition in which a child is born with an undersized head. Babies with microcephaly can suffer convulsions as well as physical and mental disabilities as they mature. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk for microcephaly with Zika infections is 1 to 13 percent in the first trimester.
To avoid contracting the Zika virus, the CDC recommends being fully clothed in areas where the virus is prominent and to use mosquito repellent.
Smith said Thursday that he believes the virus may travel next to Louisiana following recent flooding there.
“In this kind of county, we advise to be watchful,” Okoye said. “We can’t really tell, but we advise to be observant. If you’ve been in areas where the virus is prominent and you have symptoms, go get checked out.”
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.