Ohio health officials Tuesday confirmed their first two cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus and both involved travelers returning from Haiti.
Indiana officials also confirmed Tuesday that a case there involved someone returning from Haiti.
The two Ohio cases were a 21-year-old Stark County man and a 30-year-old Cleveland woman. Zika is rarely fatal, but can lead to birth defects in infants if contracted by a pregnant woman. An Ohio Department of Health official would not say if the Cleveland woman is pregnant but did say she was not hospitalized.
The person in Indiana is not pregnant and also was not sick enough to be hospitalized, according to health officials there.
News about the Ohio and Indiana cases came as President Barack Obama has asked Congress to spend up to $1.8 billion on the virus sweeping South and Central America and the Caribbean. The spending is designed to keep the virus in its place or eradicate it altogether, similar to nation’s battle against Ebola beginning in 2014.
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At least 35 other travel-associated cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those infected were found in the District of Columbia and 11 more states: Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia.
Some news organizations have reported higher numbers of cases. To date, however, there is just one U.S. case involving direct transmission, believed to be the result of sex involving someone in the U.S. and an infected person who had returned from Venezuela.
Health officials emphasize that a large majority of the Zika virus cases are not serious. Healthy people don’t generally suffer adverse affects, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
About 80 percent of people who test positive for the virus don’t even have symptoms. And when symptoms occur, they are often mild, lasting from several days to a week, and include fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, conjunctivitis, and headache. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.
Zika can have serious ramifications for pregnant women, however. Due to the possible association between Zika virus, infections in pregnant women and certain birth defects, the CDC recommends that pregnant women and women trying to get pregnant consider postponing travel to areas with Zika virus transmission.
The CDC Emergency Operations Center since last week has been on its highest level of alert, or Level 1. That designation helps accelerate the development of tests to diagnose Zika, conduct studies to determine the virus’ effects on developing babies, and provide ground support in Puerto Rico, Colombia as well as Brazil. It is in Brazil where researchers hope to determine the cause of more than 4,000 babies born with underdeveloped heads and brains.
The Level 1 designation also means the health organization will be tracking mosquito populations within U.S. borders, notably the Aedes aegypti, a species common in Florida, the Gulf Coast states and those along the Mexican border.
Beginning in 2015, Zika outbreaks were reported in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. Zika transmission is expected to increase throughout the region, increasing the incidence of infection in travelers and increasing the probability of local transmissions in the U.S.
Though health officials say the probability of infection is low, those contracting the virus do so without a known treatment.
“There is no vaccine available for Zika virus so it’s important for Ohioans traveling to affected areas to take steps to prevent mosquito bites,” said Dr. Mary DiOrio, medical director of the Ohio Department of Health. DiOria said there has yet to be a case within the continental United States through transmission through a mosquito bite.
Dhananjai Rao, an assistant professor in the department of computer science and software engineering at Miami University in Oxford, is working with the Pan American Health Organization to obtain data on the chikungunya virus and using it for forecasting the spread of the Zika virus.
Rao said Ohio’s announcement of a confirmed Zika case wasn’t surprising since the infected person was bit in an area of the world that is infested with mosquitoes that are carrying it. His work details where the virus is and where it might spread.
Using two maps to illustrate the movement of the species known as Aedes aegypti mosquito (Zika mosquito, dengue fever) and the Aedes albopictus (chikungunya), Rao explained the geographic movement of the mosquitoes carrying these viruses.
“The Aedes aegypti is common in the Gulf Coast region, Florida and Louisiana. The warm weather climate in Florida is warm enough to allow both species to survive year around, which increases the risk of being infected,” he said.
Rao’s maps illustrate how the Zika virus-carrying mosquito is prevalent in two dozen countries, mostly in the Caribbean and Latin America - particularly in Mexico, Haiti and Brazil - where the outbreak is growing.
With eight cases, Puerto Rico has the most mosquito-acquired cases within U.S. states or territories. Ohio’s winter typically keeps the insect in check, said Bill Wharton, Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County spokesman.
“One of the things that we’re fortunate with right now is, because of the time of the year, mosquitoes are not an issue for us,” he said.
Rao said when his computer forecasting model is complete, he will be able to give a forecast on outbreaks of Zika and other viruses comparable to a meteorologists weather forecast.
“The weather forecaster can tell you that snow is going to fall on your house, maybe not an exact figure, but a ballpark figure, so you can prepare for that,” Rao said. “That is what we are going to do - forecast where these viruses are spreading to millions of people, plus or minus 10 to 15 percent.”
Dr. Ginger Cameron, Cedarville University professor of pharmacy practice, is an expert on infectious diseases. She said there is no reason for Ohioans to panic after Tuesday’s confirmed case.
“I am not overly concerned at this point because there is only one confirmed case and this woman traveled to Haiti and then brought it back with them,” she explained. “I will be much more concerned in May when the mosquitoes will be out after being dormant in the winter months.”
Cameron and Rao both said that the high level of attention being paid to the Zika virus isn’t overkill, and the abundance of information is good towards leading to people to take proactive measures to ensure they aren’t helping mosquitoes thrive so they can spread the virus.
Following the first case of Zika virus reported in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, along with Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced abill to speed up potential new treatments and a vaccine.
“The Zika virus — like so many other public health threats — is never more than a plane ride away, ” Brown said. “Our reaction must keep pace with the spread of Zika, which means we should make developing an effective treatments for the virus a priority.