Late last July, public health officials announced the inevitable: the mosquito-borne Zika virus has made inroads into the state of Florida, with at least four locally acquired cases as of July 27. But could it hit New York?
Though there are about 1,600 reported cases of Zika within the Continental United States, all of its sufferers up until now had likely contracted the disease either from a Zika-carrying mosquito elsewhere in the world, from sex with a Zika-infected partner (most often male partners), or from a laboratory accident while studying it. The four documented cases in Florida, however, were the result of having been bitten by Florida’s local mosquito population.
With previous outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile Virus still relatively fresh in the Big Apple’s history (West Nile is coincidentally endemic in the state now), should New Yorkers be worried about Zika making it that far north? Let’s find out.
Possible But Remote
As of late July, there have been 449 travel-associated cases of Zika found in New York, largely due to its status as a popular travel hub and diverse immigrant population. But like elsewhere, there have been no locally acquired cases.
The Zika virus is primarily spread by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito as well as possibly the Aedes albopictus mosquito. Both species of mosquitoes have been spotted as far north as New York City, but only the latter A. albopictus is known to regularly call the southern half of New York State home. Theoretically then, Zika could find its way to local mosquito populations in New York and start infecting residents.
Ultimately though, it’s a remote possibility. We’re still not completely sure that A. albopictus spreads Zika, and if it does, it may not do a very good job of it compared to A. aegypti. New York is also at the very edge of either mosquito’s geographic range, unlike Florida, likely meaning the opportunity for infection is much less common. Regardless, the state has stepped up its mosquito control program, launching a six-step Zika action plan targeted at educating the public, treating the areas of water where mosquitoes often call home, and handing out 20,000 free Zika Protection Kits to low-income pregnant women, which include condoms and insect repellant.
As Medical Daily has addressed, Zika is a serious public health threat, but its impact shouldn’t be overstated. The vast majority of sufferers experience no symptoms, though it can occasionally cause a mild fever, a red or pink rash with bumps, and joint pain that lasts up to a week. It may also, very rarely, trigger a neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome that leads to muscle weakness, tingling, and possibly temporary paralysis. In pregnant women, however, Zika infection (particularly in the earliest trimesters) may cause a number of birth defects in their developing children, leading to an increased chance of miscarriage or conditions such as microcephaly, or a smaller-than-normal brain.
Thankfully for most pregnant women stateside, including in New York City, that’s a possibility they don’t have to stress too much about, provided they don’t travel to areas of the world where Zika is making its presence heavily felt. The state did recently report its first case of Zika-related microcephaly this past July, however.