WHO Estimates Up To 4 Million Cases In Americas Over Next Year; 5 Cases Of Virus Confirmed In NY

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Local and federal officials are addressing the spread of Zika virus as the World Health Organization estimates there could be 3 to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas over the next year.

Health officials said the number of U.S. residents diagnosed with Zika infections in the past year has grown to 31, but said all of them are believed to have caught the infection while traveling abroad.

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Officials said the 31 people are in 11 states, including seven confirmed cases in New York, and Washington. In U.S. territories, Puerto Rico has 19 confirmed cases and the U.S. Virgin Islands has one. There was one reported case cited in New Jersey.

The New York State Department of Health reported two Zika patients were confirmed in New York City, one in Orange County, one in upstate Monroe County and one in Nassau County.

New York City health officials said of the three cases in New York City, one of the patients is pregnant. All of the patients have traveled recently, officials said.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano joined health officials Thursday to ask residents to prioritize safety, CBS2’s Meg Baker reported.

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“We don’t want our residents to panic,” said Commissioner of Health Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein. “There are zero chances of catching this disease in Nassau County right now.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said pregnant women, or those who may become pregnant, should try to avoid travel to 24 countries and territories, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean where Zika virus has been spreading.

“The mosquito responsible for the transmission in areas of Latin America and the Caribbean is a mosquito species that we do not see in New York City,” City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett told 1010 WINS’ Samantha Liebman.

Zika is spread by mosquitoes and in most people causes no more than mild illness, with the most common symptoms being fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis.

But there’s been mounting evidence linking Zika infection in pregnant women to a birth defect called microcephaly, in which a newborn’s head is unusually small and the brain may not develop properly.

CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reports that if you are planning to get pregnant to not travel to any area in which you may come in contact with the virus.

A small number of cases in Brazil and French Polynesia have also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome in adult patients, a rare autoimmune condition which can result in paralysis.

So far, the Zika virus has not been found in any mosquitoes in the U.S., but the issue is with residents returning from abroad.

On Long Island, Hempstead, Brentwood and other areas have some of the largest Central American populations in the United States.

“We have one of largest El Salvador populations anywhere in the nation,” said Nassau University Medical Center President and CEO Dr. Vic Politi. “This time of year, it’s nice and warm down there and a lot of people go there for vacation and travel to that location and a lot of residents have family there.”

NYU Langone’s Dr. Tara Shirazian said doctors here are bracing for the likelihood of more cases.

“Only one out of five get the symptoms, but there’s evidence that it’s highly transmissible to the fetus,” she said. “You don’t need the symptoms to pass it on.” 

Shirazian said some people infected with Zika virus have few or no symptoms and may be unaware that they are infected. Those who do feel ill may experience fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

The types of mosquitoes that could potentially carry the virus are found in this country. In warmer months, those mosquitoes can be found in regions where 60 percent of Americans live — about 200 million people.

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But Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading Obama administration health official, said Thursday he doubts the United States is vulnerable to a widespread outbreak of a virus.

Fauci said the virus hopefully can be kept at bay with “mosquito vector control.” 

Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, appeared on “CBS This Morning.”  He said administration officials do not believe there are major ways of spreading the virus “other than by mosquito bites.”

Meanwhile, Sylvain Aldighieri, head of WHO’s epidemic response team in the Americas, said the agency expects “huge numbers” of infections because of the widespread presence of the mosquitoes that spread Zika and because there is no immunity among the population.

He said that since most people with Zika don’t get sick, there is a “silent circulation” of the disease that may make tracking its spread more difficult.

Zika is not thought to be spread from person to person, but more research is needed to determine if  it can be sexually transmitted and whether it can be detected through blood transfusions.

On Tuesday, the CDC added the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic to the list of destinations with Zika virus disease outbreaks. 

In Latin America: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela.

Also in the Caribbean: Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St. Martin and Puerto Rico. In addition in Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa; and Samoa in the South Pacific.

Russell Smith and his pregnant wife planned a vacation before the baby arrives on a Caribbean cruise and have since cancelled, but had major issues getting a refund.

“In hearing about the CDC travel ban, we immediately started doing some research and found that it has serious complications that could result from getting infected by this disease,” he said. “So we decided safety foremost, we could not travel.”

“This is our first time around and I don’t want to do anything to happen to put the child at risk,” Smith’s wife Rosemary told 1010 WINS’ Al Jones.

United Airlines will offer refunds to passengers worried about visiting the affected areas and American will refund pregnant passengers.

“While some airlines are doing the right thing and refunding pregnant customers, all carriers and cruise lines should do the same,” Mangano said. “And that’s why I’m submitting legislation requiring carriers doing business here in Nassau County to refund pregnant travelers.”

It’s recommended not to travel to those locations if you don’t have to, but if you must, health officials urge everyone to take the necessarily steps to protect themselves by staying in the air condition and using bug spray.

There are no vaccines or medications available to prevent or treat Zika infections.

The only reported case in Nassau County was a traveler who has since fully recovered, WCBS 880’s Mike Xirinachs reported.

WHO said it is convening an emergency committee on Monday to decide if the Zika virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.

The mosquito has a “cousin,” or related species that’s active in the New York City region during the warm weather months, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported. Health agencies are preparing a battle plan to monitor that mosquito and annual eradication efforts are likely to be stepped up as a precaution.

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