After a relatively quiet fall, Zika is back in the news, with new reported cases recently presenting in Texas. As the virus continues to spread in the U.S., what implications does this have for federal efforts to contain further zika outbreaks?
Building on its experiences with Ebola in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has created new rapid response teams, called CDC Emergency Response Teams (CERT), that bring expanded expertise to contain outbreaks of the Zika virus as quickly as possible.
The teams include epidemiologists, entomologists, vector technicians, communications specialists, and public health scientists who analyze disease outbreaks and study ways to prevent future ones. They rush to areas where Zika is reported and help with local efforts to identify other patients and health care workers, such as nurses, who may have been in contact with an infected person. They also provide extra hands in the collection and analysis of blood samples.
Zika, which can be transmitted by mosquito bites, sexual contact, or from mother to fetus, typically causes mild symptoms, including rash, fever, joint pain and bloodshot eyes. It has also in rare cases been associated with Guillan-Barre syndrome, which includes temporary muscle weakness and paralysis.
The effect that has brought the greatest concerns involves pregnant women. Zika infection sometimes causes microencephaly, a birth defect in which a baby’s head is unusually small. It can also result in developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, problems with balance and with swallowing, according to the CDC.
CDC officials have developed a detailed, 57-page plan for handling Zika outbreaks, which calls for epidemiologists to study outbreak patterns; doctors to interview and treat nurses and other health care workers who may have been in contact with people who had the disease; entomologists to trap and study mosquitoes in the outbreak area; and communications officers to coordinate getting information out to the public.
The Zika plan draws from lessons in the Ebola outbreak, in which precautions for health care workers were not adequate. Two nurses caring for a patient with Ebola in the U.S. also contracted the disease themselves. Both recovered. But the case led to sharp criticism of the CDC. Thus, the creation of CERT to investigate and respond to Zika outbreaks.
Behind the scenes, CERT disease detectives interview people, collect data and trap mosquitoes, all while working to contain the disease and quell to growing concerns about its reach.
In July of this year, an elderly man in Salt Lake City died after contracting the Zika virus, the first fatality from the disease in the continental U.S. His son, who had been a caregiver, also became sick, but health officials did not know how. Two entomologists who are vector-borne disease specialists helped local authorities trap mosquitoes to see if they were transmitting Zika.
CERTs have also deployed to Texas and the Miami area. More than 4,000 people have been diagnosed in the U.S. with Zika, from locally-acquired mosquito-borne cases, travel-associated cases, and laboratory-acquired cases.
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