It’s become nearly an epidemic in some countries. But in New Jersey, the Zika virus has been more like a passing threat.
By summer, however, that could all change.
Federal and state health officials are saying that the Zika virus could be a bigger threat to New Jersey than you think.
The fact that the disease is constantly evolving – and now believed to be more harmful than originally thought – also worries health officials.
“It’s constantly evolving, and with every passing day, there is more information,” said Christina Tan, assistant commissioner for Epidemiology, Environmental and Occupational Health/State Epidemiologist at N.J. Department of Health and Human Services.
Here’s why health officials believe it’s a bigger threat:
- Government scientists say they have definitely determined that the Zika virus causes severe defects in unborn children, including microcephaly, which leaves babies with abnormally small heads and brains that do not develop properly.
- N.J. health officials indicated that the disease could also be sexually transmitted, not just vaginally but also through the anal transmission. The Zika virus can be spread during sex by a man infected with Zika to his partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- The CDC says mosquitoes that can transmit the Zika virus may live in a much larger area than previously thought, extending to all of New Jersey.
Tan said she hopes that New Jersey officials are able to effectively control the mosquito population by the summer when the insect tends to become more prevalent.
She noted that New Jersey and other states effectively underwent similar procedures when the West Nile virus became a threat in the late 1990s.
“We’re doing what we can for mosquito control,” she said.
The findings regarding severe defects, meanwhile, were published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine by scientists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This study marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a press release. “It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly.
“We are also launching further studies to determine whether children who have microcephaly born to mothers infected by the Zika virus is the tip of the iceberg of what we could see in damaging effects on the brain and other developmental problems.”
Tan, however, said that health officials are concerned that the virus can be transmitted “casually” – and through sexually contact – because it shows that the knowledge of the disease, or even the virus, is evolving.
The CDC also recently posted new maps of the estimated range of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes on its website, showing that all areas of New Jersey could become home to the potentially dangerous insect.
The mosquitoes were once thought to be a threat to only the southern areas of the United States. But the CDC maps show the mosquitoes reaching as far as New York City, New Jersey, southern Pennsylvania, and California.
The maps also show the mosquito’s cousin, Aedes albopictus, reaching all of New Jersey and as far north as Maine.
The CDC has reported 312 cases in the United States. There have been no reported cases of Zika transmitted through a mosquito bite, according to the agency. New Jersey has had 8 cases, all travel-related, including one involving a Camden County woman who tested positive two weeks ago.
“Symptoms of Zika virus usually develop between two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito and can last several days to a week,” said Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, liaison to the Camden County Health Department. “Anyone who is traveling to an area where the virus is found should be extra vigilant about protecting yourself against mosquito bites.”