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County health director: Count on more Zika-related birth defects


Sick of hearing about Zika already? Get used to it as more birth defects related to the virus are expected in 2017 in Florida and throughout the U.S.

This summer, there will be a full-court press by health officials against Zika.

“It’s not something to be taken lightly,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, head of the Palm Beach County Health Department, in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.

The main emphasis again is going to be on pregnant women. She said the CDC expects to see a 20-fold higher proportion of Zika-affected birth defects compared to those seen in 2013-14, before Zika came to the Americas.

Before 2014, there were three cases of Zika-caused microcephaly for every 1,000 births. That number is now up to 60 cases per 1,000. “That’s a large increase,” Alonso said.

Microcephaly is a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than normal.

On Friday, the CDC released a report that 15 percent of infants were born with birth defects in pregnancies with a confirmed infection in the first trimester. “These findings highlight why pregnant women should avoid Zika virus exposure,” the report stated.

The CDC suggest that because the full effects of the virus is unknown, all pregnant women infected with Zika should receive postnatal imaging and a comprehensive newborn physical exam and hearing screen.

So as the summer comes barreling down the calendar, the focus of health officials will be on the mosquito-borne virus that causes severe birth defects. More than 2,000 cases have been recorded in Florida.

Alonso said she dispatched teams last summer that went door-to-door in neighborhoods about Zika. “We were very pro-active,” she said. “I expect to see more cases because the mosquito is already established here in our environment.”

The Aedes aegypti is the main culprit that carries Zika. It also can transmit dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika fever and yellow fever viruses.

The Health Department will work with doctors to continue a registry of pregnant women who test positive for Zika. “We will see if they have healthy babies or affected babies,” she said.

Alonso said the best prevention, of course, would be a vaccine, but until then people have to practice prevention, whether it is draining standing water or using repellant. About 80 percent of people who contract the virus don’t exhibit any symptoms — fever, rash, body aches. But for those who do, Zika can have serious, even neurological, consequences.

Zika can be transmitted through sexual activity, so Alonso suggests the use of condoms or abstaining from sex for people who have traveled to infected areas in the Caribbean and South America.

And Alonso doesn’t shy away from the fact that Zika can cost the state plenty.

“Because it is affecting pregnant women, it is affecting our tourism. It is very important,” she said.

Last week Gov. Rick Scott held a news conference with Alonso to talk about efforts to combat Zika. With serious tourist dollars at stake, Scott can claim some initial victories.

He has called on the CDC for advice and assistance. A Zika hotline was created. Lab testing capacity was expanded. He has demanded more money from Washington. He used emergency power to release $61 million from the general fund for research, prevention and response. Mailers were sent out to residents in multiple languages.

Researchers are working furiously to find a vaccine.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has announced that vaccination trials have begun using an experimental DNA serum.

The trial aims to enroll at least 2,490 healthy participants in areas of confirmed or potential active mosquito-transmitted Zika infection, including the continental United States and Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

“A safe and effective Zika vaccine is urgently needed to prevent the often-devastating birth defects that can result from Zika virus infection during pregnancy,” NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci said on March 31.

“Evidence also is accumulating that Zika can cause a variety of health problems in adults as well. This trial marks a significant milestone in our efforts to develop countermeasures for a pandemic in progress.”



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