It was a matter of when, not if. A handful of men and women living in Florida have been diagnosed with Zika, making them the first official cases of the virus contracted within the United States. The implication here is that the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can be found across many of the warmer southern states, is now able to spread the virus across parts of North America.
According to BBC News, more than 1,650 cases of Zika have been detected in the US, but none of them have been spread via mosquito within the nation’s borders. The majority of patients were infected abroad before traveling back home, whereas the remaining minority were infected with sexual activity, which is known to be able to transmit the virus from person to person.
At present, fourteen people have contracted the virus within Florida, most likely through bites from a local Ae. aegypti mosquito. However, as in most cases of Zika infection, they are not in any danger, nor have they been hospitalized. The problem here is that they have now become reservoirs for the virus, and Ae. aegypti could inadvertently use them to spread the disease to the wider population.
In fact, now that Zika exists within the blood of several people in the two most densely populated counties in Florida – Miami-Dade and Broward – it’s a near certainty that the virus will spread, particularly as the summer heat spreads further northwards and the mosquitos proliferate along with it.
Several studies over the last few months predicted that Zika was most likely going to first spread in Florida, with Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama most likely to register cases next as the summer goes on. Metropolises as far north as New York City are also seen to be at risk, thanks to rising temperatures and the presence of the Ae. aegypti mosquito.
Where Zika is likely to spread, based on the prevalence of the Ae. aegypti mosqutio. PLOS Currents Outbreaks
Currently, officials in Florida are checking in on every single household within the local neighborhoods of those that have been infected. Their primary aims are to confirm that local mosquito populations are spreading the virus, and to check if anyone else has been infected.
Bodies of standing water – breeding grounds for mosquitos – are being destroyed, and officials are advising all residents to wear mosquito repellent. All blood donations in the two affected counties are currently suspended.
At present, there are no plans to restrict travel in and out of the Sunshine State from within the US, although other countries have begun to warn their own citizens about traveling there. President Obama has demanded that all necessary resources are to be given to help Florida defeat the virus, hoping to overcome the failure of Congress to agree on funding for antiviral strategies before its senators and representatives left for their summer break.
Zika isn’t a threat to most of those that it infects, but pregnant women, especially those in their first trimester, are particularly at risk. As multiple studies have shown, Zika preferentially infects the central nervous system of developing fetuses, which can result in harmful neurological conditions like microcephaly. In some cases, the baby is born without much of a brain left at all.
A recent study estimated that 1.65 million childbearing women within Central and South America are at risk from being infected by the virus, and up to 13 percent of these pregnancies will result in neurological damage. Although multiple vaccines are being trialled, they won’t be ready in time for this epidemic, which some estimate will be over in three years after enough people are infected by the virus and subsequently become immune to it.
Miami. It's likely more cases will pop up here over the next month or so. Sean Pavone/Shutterstock