The Zika virus, one that can cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads, is currently spreading rapidly across South America. Worryingly, a baby born with this rare condition, known as microcephaly, has now been recorded in Hawaii. According to The New York Times, this is the first case of Zika virus-related microcephaly in the United States.
The Hawaii State Department of Health announced that a baby born in an Oahu hospital with a shrunken cranium had been infected with the Zika virus, the pathogen that is thought to have caused up to 2,800 similar cases in newborns in Brazil in 2015 alone. The mother of the baby in this new case was living in Brazil in 2015, and was probably infected there at an early stage of her pregnancy, before traveling to Hawaii to give birth.
The Zika virus was first isolated in 1947, from a rhesus monkey in Uganda's Zika Forest. Its spread through mosquitoes of the Aedes genus to all kinds of primates, including humans. Although adults infected with the virus can suffer from painful headaches, rashes, fevers and joint pains, it is far more dangerous for pregnant mothers to contract. This virus interferes with fetal development, and can causes newborn babies to suffer from microcephaly, which often results in intellectual disability.
A recent Lancet study estimated that up to 1.3 million Brazilian people could be living with the virus, and health officials are increasingly concerned that this dangerous agent is spreading to as-of-yet untouched nations around the world.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that pregnant women should not travel to areas affected by the Zika virus, including Puerto Rico, where cases of the Zika virus began to flare up at the end of last year. The Ministry of Health of Brazil has already declared a national public health emergency, advising women who want to become pregnant to delay their plans.
The Lancet study shows the locations of the most at risk areas in the Americas, along with the travel destinations of those leaving Brazil, from September 2014 to August 2015. Khan et al./The Lancet
This diagnosis in Hawaii confirms the findings of a recent study that hoped to predict where the virus will spread. Zika, since October 2014, has already spread throughout much of Latin America, and many researchers suspect that the massive influx of visitors to Brazil during the 2014 World Cup brought the virus with them to Latin America.
This new study mapped the final destinations of travelers leaving Brazil between September 2014 and August 2015. Of those outgoing 10 million travelers, 65 percent were heading to the Americas – the U.S. most of all. Correlating this with the environment the Aedes mosquitos were most likely to thrive in, they noted that 22.7 million people in the U.S. are living in areas highly conductive to the year-round transmission of the Zika virus. Unsurprisingly, the humid, hot climes of Hawaii were suggested to be an ideal transmission ground.
Zika belongs to the same family of viruses that also includes those that cause West Nile, yellow and dengue fevers. Thus, researchers believe that Zika will follow the same transmission pattern as dengue fever, also spread by Aedes mosquitos. As it turns out, Hawaii is currently undergoing an outbreak of dengue fever.
Florida and the Gulf Coast – hot, tropical regions perfect for Aedes mosquitos to thrive in – may be next on the list to show cases of Zika-related microcephaly.