Yesterday, Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services confirmed that three additional people who live outside Houston city limits have tested positive for the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus, bringing the count to seven people total so far.
All three people had traveled to El Salvador, officials say, though none were traveling together. Those who tested positive were a middle-aged woman, a young-adult male and a boy under age ten; all three had developed symptoms in November or December of last year, which include a fever, rash, and joint and muscle pain. According to HCPHES, all three have since recovered from the virus.
The World Health Organization recently declared the Zika virus, widespread in Latin America, to be an international emergency and says the Americas could see 4 million cases over the next year. The species of mosquito that spreads the virus exists in Texas and the United States — and pretty much everywhere else but Antarctica — but it can carry the virus only if it bites a person who already has Zika. Dr. Umair Shah, HCPHES executive director, says that it only takes some Tylenol, hydration and rest for Zika symptoms to subside in a few days, which is why the illness has traditionally been considered non-threatening. But global concerns have risen after Brazilian researchers started compiling evidence that may link Zika to an otherwise rare birth defect, a condition called microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and undeveloped brains.
Brazil saw 3,000 cases of microcephaly in 2015, and a million Zika cases that year. There's no conclusive proof of the link yet, but the threat is serious enough that El Salvador has asked women not to get pregnant until 2018. Brazil has now made it mandatory for those who develop symptoms to report them immediately. And the U.S. has issued travel alerts covering more than a dozen Latin American countries, recommending that pregnant women postpone trips to any of the countries on the list (provided at the end of this article).
Shah said that while he expects Harris County to continue seeing more cases of Zika, residents shouldn't panic. The only reported cases of Zika are in travelers, he said, meaning mosquitoes here likely have not yet caught on. Nevertheless, if the temps in the past few days are any indication, summer isn't that far off and mosquitoes will start annoying you pretty soon. Shah recommends people use repellent regardless of whether they've been to El Salvador lately.
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“The message that we have is prevent and present,” he said. “Prevent yourself from getting bit by a mosquito that has Zika virus — that's an obvious one. And if you've gone to a country where the Zika virus is active and you develop symptoms, we want you to go to your health-care provider. Right now, the vast majority of residents aren't traveling to these countries, so they can go about their business. But we want them to remember to take precautions.”
Countries on the U.S. travel alert list, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
In Latin America: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. In the Caribbean: Barbados, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St. Martin, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. Others: Cape Verde islands, off coast of western Africa; and Samoa in South Pacific.
Newly added as of Monday: American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao and Nicaragua.