Ana Rius, Puerto Rico’s health secretary, just announced the first Zika-related death on the island.
According to the Associated Press, a 70-year-old man who had been infected with Zika died in February from a drop in blood platelets, the part of the blood that is responsible for forming clots. It’s still unclear how the two issues converged to be fatal.
Puerto Rico, a US territory, has seen more than 600 Zika cases. Seventy-three of those have been in pregnant women, which is of particular concern to health officials since the virus can cause severe birth defects like microcephaly, or babies being born with abnormally small heads. So far, 14 of the infected women have given birth to healthy babies, according to Rius.
Another 16 Puerto Ricans are currently hospitalized with the virus; health officials say 4 may have developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a temporary condition that can cause paralysis, as a result.
Zika is a fairly new virus that’s been spreading throughout South America. It’s also been documented among US travellers, though it’s not yet being transmitted locally by mosquitoes there. So far, there’s no rapid diagnostic test to detect Zika in a newly-infected person. Yet the virus has been found to play a role in causing severe birth defects including microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads. And it has no cure.
Despite its severe potential consquences for babies, there is some good news: Zika is rarely fatal in healthy adults.
The vast majority of otherwise healthy adults who get Zika experience symptoms similar to those of having a cold or a fever.
Nevertheless, some scientists are concerned about Zika in North America. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told NBC News that he was “very worried about Zika” in January.
While a single tourist is unlikely to be the cause of an outbreak here, he said, some American cities could be vulnerable to Zika’s spread.
“We have to act now,” Hotez said.
One of the biggest issues with the Zika virus, which is spread by a certain species of mosquito called Aedes aegypti, is that only about 20% of infected people ever show symptoms. And even among those people, it produces only low-level symptoms like fever, rash, join pain, and red eyes. Plus, the illness is typically mild — symptoms usually last anywhere from several days to a week, and hospitalisation is rarely necessary.
While there has not been any local transmission via mosquitos in the US (except for in some US territories) yet, the WHO has previously warned of this possibility. The mosquitos that can spread Zika are prevalent in many American states and thrive in tropical climates. This is why experts like Hotez have warned of it popping up in areas in the US with wet lowlands, warm temperatures, and species of mosquito that can transmit the virus.
The first reported case of a traveller with Zika in the US was in Texas. Since then, travellers have tested positive for the Zika virus in New York, Los Angeles, and in several other countries outside the Americas.