By J.M. Gruendel, ICS Senior Fellow
This week, the Puerto Rico Department of Health reported that more than 22,300 of its residents were infected with the Zika virus. Among those Zika-infected individuals, 1,871 were pregnant women. Contracting the Zika virus during pregnancy can result in significant neurological damage to a fetus.
The prevalence of infection in the mainland U.S. is also increasing. In mid-September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 3,358 Zika cases nationally. While New York, Florida, California and Texas have the greatest number of Zika-reported cases, even states like North Carolina and South Carolina are now reporting the presence of the virus among their residents.
Whether this represents better reporting, more infections, or both, the spread of the Zika virus should raise significant concerns to those of us working in the early childhood space.
A recent white paper published by the Public Consulting Group, The Zika Virus: Implications for Collaboration across Human Services and State Action Plans, summarizes data on the prevalence, spread, and both human and economic impact of the disease.
The Zika virus is transmitted directly by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, through sexual relations with an infected person and in a small number of cases, through blood transfusions. At present, there is no vaccine for the Zika virus.
While the mosquito that carries the Zika virus bites in the evening (as do many other mosquitoes), it is an especially aggressive daytime biter that lives near or in homes. Pregnant women, or women who plan to become pregnant, are especially vulnerable because of dramatic risks to their babies.
Babies born with the Zika virus (generally passed from the mother to the baby through the placenta during pregnancy but not through breast feeding afterward) may suffer from microcephaly, developmental delays, seizures, vision, hearing and motor impairment, and neurologic challenges that impair daily functioning.
Microcephaly, which literally means “small brain,” can be the most significant and frightening result of Zika infection, and its most severe form can require intensive home and even institutional treatment over the life of the child. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the cost of caring for a child with microcephaly can range from $1 million to $10 million dollars over the child’s lifetime.
Devastating photos of babies born with microcephaly have been published recently in major newspapers across the U.S. While this particular birth defect once was rare, among Zika-infected mothers its prevalence could range between 7 and 13 percent of all births. In the U.S. at the present time, 234 pregnant women have been identified by the CDC as infected with the Zika virus.
To track Zika births, the CDC established the U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry. Updated data by states are also available on the CDC Zika website, along with a rich array of scientific information. The new Zika virus white paper mentioned above includes a list of Zika-specific web pages for each state in the U.S., some of which have posted their required Zika Action Plans online.
Those of us working in the human services face a series of challenges in dealing with the Zika virus risk. First, there is no single gateway to access all Zika state plans. Second, these plans vary considerably, often based on the resource limits of state and local public health jurisdictions. Third, there are insufficient connections between Zika action plans and other essential services for impacted children and families. Finally, there is inadequate attention to Zika risks arising from travel between the U.S. and its territories, especially Puerto Rico.
Prevention, surveillance, interagency coordination and continued public education are the best actions we can take against the Zika virus at this time. No state is immune from health dangers of this dangerous virus, and all mothers-to-be living in communities of risk need to take strong precautions. The itch that results from the bit of this mosquito is the least of our worries.