Cayman prepares for Zika

Cayman’s public health officials expect the Zika virus to be in the country in the coming months and are preparing the Mosquito Research and Control Unit and the islands’ healthcare workers to deal with the new virus.

Recently, Jamaica detected its first case of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is linked to severe birth defects for children of infected mothers. On Monday the World Health Organization declared the virus a public health emergency and called for an international response.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Premier Alden McLaughlin said, “In all likelihood the virus will find its way here in the coming months.”

Cayman’s leading public health official Dr. Samuel Williams-Rodriguez said, “We are aware of confirmed cases in the United States and Jamaica with relevant travel history. With the proximity and transient visiting population from the U.S. and Jamaica to Cayman, all health services providers have been asked to remain on alert in identifying any symptoms presented by patients.”

WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan said Monday, “A coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy.”

The virus is spread by the same mosquitoes responsible for spreading chikungunya and dengue, the Aedes aegypti.

The WHO Emergency Committee stopped short of recommending travel or trade restrictions, though many countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, have warned women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant against traveling to countries where Zika has become common.

The Pan American Health Organization notes that about one in four people who contract Zika show symptoms. PAHO notes that the symptoms are similar to chikungunya and dengue: “The most common symptoms of Zika virus infection are mild fever and exanthema (skin rash), usually accompanied by conjunctivitis, muscle or joint pain, and general malaise that begins 2-7 days after the bite of an infected mosquito.”

The symptoms typically last from two days to a week, according to PAHO.

The main threat from Zika is to pregnant mothers. The virus has been linked in South and Central America to thousands of cases of microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains.

The Guardian newspaper quoted a stark warning from Jeremy Farrar, head of the health-focused NGO the Wellcome Trust: “In many ways the Zika outbreak is worse than the Ebola epidemic of 2014-15.”

Mr. Farrar said, “Most virus carriers are symptomless. It is a silent infection in a group of highly vulnerable individuals – pregnant women – that is associated with a horrible outcome for their babies.”

According to the World Health Organization, health officials first identified the virus in Uganda’s Zika forest in 1947. The virus stayed in Africa for the most part, with sporadic outbreak in Asia. There was a major epidemic reported on an island in Micronesia in 2007, when almost three-quarters of the population was infected, according to the World Health Organization.

The first confirmed Zika case in the Americas was on March 3, 2014, in Chile. By May 2015, Brazilian public health authorities identified the virus transmitting locally in the northeast of that country, the WHO notes. Now the Pan American Health Organization reports local transmission of the virus in 27 countries in the Americas.

In the Caribbean, local Zika cases, those not brought in by someone who visited another country, have been found in Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados and Curacao. Local Zika cases have also been found in every Central American country except Belize.