Santa Barbara Public Health Officials Keep Vigilant Eye on Spread of Zika Virus

January 28, 2016

Noozhawk, Lara Cooper

Santa Barbara County Public Health Department officials are remaining vigilant about the mosquito-transmitted virus that has spread across South America and Central America and may be linked to serious birth defects.

The county has already submitted one patient specimen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test for the presence of the Zika virus, which has recently made global headlines.

Numbers of people infected with the virus have skyrocketed in countries like Brazil at the same time as an increase in a rare birth defect called microcephaly.

“Although Zika typically causes only mild symptoms, outbreaks in Brazil have coincided with a marked increase in microcephaly—or unusually small head size—in newborns,” according to a statement sent out this week from the Pan-American Health Organization, a regional office of the World Health Organization.

The virus is transmitted primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, and though no locally transmitted Zika cases have been reported in the continental United States, cases have been reported in returning travelers.

Brazil first reported cases of the virus in May of last year, and since then it has spread to over 20 countries and territories.

“With the recent outbreaks, the number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase,” the PAHO stated this week.

“These imported cases could result in local spread of the virus in some areas of the United States.”

Because the Aedes aegypti mosquito is present in all countries in the Americas — except for Canada and Chile — the virus is likely to spread, officials say.

Santa Barbara County's Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean was part of a conference call on Tuesday with other public health experts and CDC officials.

Dean also confirmed that one patient specimen from Santa Barbara County was sent to the CDC about a week ago.

The testing is being done on a specimen from a patient that had recently traveled to one of the affected countries and returned to Santa Barbara County.

Dean said she couldn't share any more details on the case, other than to say that testing could either be done on a patient's blood or amniotic fluid. The results should come back in a week or two.

Dean said she anticipates more testing will be done on patients in the future because of the amount of travel taking place.

Much of Tuesday’s update from the CDC involved discussion about whether Zika can be transmitted sexually, like Ebola.

It’s unknown at this point, but officials are actively researching it, Dean said.

“It has not been ruled out,” she said.

Whether Zika could show up in Santa Barbara County comes down to whether the Aedes mosquito is found.

The insect has been recorded in other California counties, Dean said, but hasn’t been seen yet in Santa Barbara County.

Public health officials met with the county's vector control experts last November to talk about the Aedes mosquito, which can also be a carrier for other diseases, like Dengue.

“Theoretically, it could be spread in California,” she said.

That would happen if someone who had traveled internationally came to California and had the virus in their bloodstream and then were bitten by an Aedes mosquito.

That could result in local transmission, Dean said.

The CDC said that pregnant women should consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.

If travel cannot be avoided, the CDC urged women to talk to their doctor first and follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during their trip.

Click here to view the CDC’s full list of travel notifications, and “women in California who are pregnant should delay travel to any of those countries,” she said.

Up to 80 percent of people that could have the virus in their body may not have symptoms, which can include include fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, muscle pain and headache.

Dean said that the group public health officials are most concerned with are pregnant women, and that any pregnant woman who has traveled to a Zika-impacted area should inform their obstetricians.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has also issued a provider alert, reminding doctors to screen their pregnant patients for travel.

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