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The Pulse: Zika Virus Travels North; Pregnant Rhode Islanders To Be Tested

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Concerns are growing about the spread of the Zika virus to the United States. And while the mosquito that carries the virus is primarily found in the...

Concerns are growing about the spread of the Zika virus to the United States. And while the mosquito that carries the virus is primarily found in the southern U.S., the impacts of Zika are already being felt in our region. That’s the focus of The Pulse this week.

Rhode Islanders share connections with many Latin American countries where the Zika virus has spread. That’s raising concerns among some residents about whether to postpone travel.

“I just got a call from a family that is planning to travel to Mexico to see the Pope, who's going to be in Mexico this weekend."

Pregnant Rhode Islanders who have traveled to areas affected by the Zika virus will be offered a blood test and possibly ultrasound. That's just one impact the virus' spread is having on the Ocean State.

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez takes care of hundreds of Hispanic patients at his obstetrics clinics around the state.

“And their daughter is pregnant and they want to know if it’s safe for them to travel to Mexico," says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez says he told them if it were his daughter, he would not take the trip. He says he’s getting calls every day from patients worried about Zika. Given the quick spread of the disease to more than 30 countries in Latin America, that’s no surprise. An alarming number of babies have been born in those regions with microcephaly –  a birth defect that happens when the brain doesn’t develop the way it should. The link between this birth defect and Zika hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s concerning enough that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended women who are pregnant or planning on it avoid travel to Zika infested regions. The agency also now recommends all pregnant women be offered a Zika blood test and possibly an ultrasound.

Rhode Island’s health department has sent word to physicians. But Women and Infants Hospital maternal-fetal medicine Dr. Brenna Hughes says it’s a huge task.

“The infrastructure here in Rhode Island is sort of our next big step. And we don’t have it sorted out yet," said Hughes at a public panel discussion about the virus Wednesday. "I’m hoping by later today we’ll have some sense with working with the Department of Health as to how we are going to do the testing for our pregnant women in the state.”

Blood samples will be sent off to CDC labs for testing, but details like how they are collected and how insurance gets billed still have to be worked out. Infectious disease specialists believe most cases of Zika virus are transmitted by mosquito.

Still, there have been some cases of transmission through sexual contact. So what about testing men who have traveled to infested area? That’s not on the list, yet, partly because we don’t know how long the virus stays in a person’s body. Dr. Rebecca Reese is an infectious disease expert with the Rhode Island health department.

“So that is why we give the advisory about sexual activity among women who are pregnant, may be pregnant, or want to become pregnant, they should avoid unprotected sexual encounters with any of their sexual partners who have traveled to that region of the world until we know more about how long the virus can be transmitted," says Reese.

So, how to deal with this information? Concern, fear, worry – that’s all understandable. Microcephaly is a serious birth defect, a heartbreak for families. And given the stream of news stories about Zika, it can be tough to know what to think or believe.

 Here’s what we do know:

First: The mosquito that spreads Zika, aedes aegypti, is mostly found in southern U.S. states. However, the species’ range has been spreading north, so it makes sense to avoid mosquito bites even during a Rhode Island summer.

Next, only about 20 percent of people infected with the virus develop symptoms, and those are pretty mild, kind of like the flu.

The 30-fold uptick in the number of babies born with microcephaly, or underdeveloped brains, in Brazil is likely to be connected to the pregnant mother’s infection with Zika. But scientists are still not sure about that. And that’s the big message about Zika: there are still more unknowns than knowns.

For example – what about blood transfusions? Are those safe? The Rhode Island Blood Center’s Eric St. Peter says blood banks are meeting right now to determine what steps to take to make sure their supply is safe.

“We’re looking into the guidance from the AABB, which is the American Association of Blood Banks," says St. Peter. "We’re looking for their guidance on the situation which we’re expecting very soon. And we’re going to follow what they suggest we do, obviously, they’re the governing body, and the FDA as well.”

St. Peter says the blood center already asks donors who have traveled to areas with malaria to postpone their donation. Those areas happen to overlap quite a bit with Zika-affected areas. But of course, we could learn something new about the virus – and seem to every day – like how long the virus persists in the blood.

What’s clear is that this virus seems to be spreading faster and farther than it ever has before. Scientific minds are training their expertise on a Zika vaccine and how to stop the spread of the virus. 

The Pulse: Zika Virus Travels North; Pregnant Rhode Islanders To Be Tested
The Pulse: Zika Virus Travels North; Pregnant Rhode Islanders To Be Tested