Following advice from the Connecticut Department of Public Health to health care providers to be on the lookout for the Zika virus, the Yale Office of Emergency Management is investigating the potential risk posed to the University and monitoring Yale-affiliated travel in the areas of South and Central America.
Zika first arrived in Brazil in the second half of 2014, and the first U.S. case was reported in Texas Tuesday. Transmitted through the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the disease typically causes relatively mild symptoms such as low fever, body pain and rashes, none of which leave any long-lasting symptoms for individuals. But certain areas infected with the Zika epidemic have also seen an increase in cases of infant microcephaly — abnormal smallness of the head associated with incomplete brain development. Although a direct correlation between the two has not yet been found, there is “strong suspicion” that the two are connected, said Esper Kallas, infectious diseases specialist and professor of medicine at the University of São Paulo.
“There has been what appears to be a large outbreak of microcephaly, and there are a lot of different things that cause microcephaly,” said Albert Ko, department chair of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health, who is conducting research on the disease. “We have high suspicions that Zika is the cause of this outbreak in Brazil. However, we do need more hard evidence and that is something our group and many other groups are trying to get at.”
According to Ko, research groups throughout Brazil are currently attempting to find a concrete link between Zika virus and the congenital imperfections being identified in the country. Experts already know that the Zika virus can cause birth defects because the virus was detected in the tissues of fetuses in several cases, Ko said. However, it is still unclear whether the virus is responsible for the over 4,000 cases reported in Brazil, he added.
Researchers are also trying to identify which cases of microcephaly are caused by Zika since congenital malformations can have other causes, such as premature birthing, Ko said.
University Director of Emergency Management Maria Bouffard said the Office of Emergency Management is monitoring travel by Yale-affiliated individuals in the affected regions. She recommended that anyone travelling to the affected countries adhere to the protective measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin, to the best of Yale Health’s knowledge, the mosquito vector is not in Connecticut and transmission during mosquito season is not likely to be a local issue. He added that he does not believe that transmission of Zika virus occurs person-to-person.
“Yale is an international community with extensive travel to and from places where the disease is active,” Genecin said in a Sunday email. “As a result we will be vigilant for possible infection in arriving travelers; we will be advising precautions for outgoing travelers consistent with CDC recommendations, and tracking the increasing numbers of geographical regions where reports of local transmission are occurring.”
He added, however, that the response to this public health issue is in its early phases and likely to evolve. He also recommended that the public keep up with reports about the virus from the CDC.
Colleen O’Connor, special assistant to the director of health at the New Haven Health Department, emphasized that Zika spreads only by mosquitoes and cannot be spread from person to person. Although the range for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which increases in the summer, includes some regions of the United States, it does not include New England, O’Connor said.
“The cases in New York are imported cases which refers to an individual who contracts the virus abroad or in another state, then is diagnosed when they return home,” O’Connor said in a Tuesday email. “Zika virus is a reportable disease in Connecticut and to date, the New Haven Health Department has not received any reports of Zika virus infection in New Haven residents.”
She said the city of New Haven takes measures to control mosquitoes during the summer months. The New Haven Agricultural Station monitors mosquito-borne illness by trapping mosquitoes in order to monitor the species circulating in the area and test the insects for mosquito-borne illnesses, she added.
Four of five students interviewed said that although they had heard of the virus, they were not significantly worried about it reaching campus. But some cited potential concerns with students planning on or currently studying abroad in Central or South America.
Kallas said that although there is no evidence that a person with a well-functioning immune system should face any serious symptoms, there have been some cases where healthy, non-pregnant individuals after being infected with the Zika virus developed a rare nervous system syndrome known as Guillain-Barré that can lead to paralysis.
The Aedes aegypti is the same species of mosquito responsible for malaria transmission.