A Hawaiian child who was recently born with a rare birth defect called microcephaly had been infected with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, the state Department of Health announced.
Officials made the announcement on Friday, the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated travel warnings for regions where Zika outbreaks are present.
The Zika virus usually only causes a mild illness and most people typically recover in a week, the CDC says, but the virus is collecting global attention because scientists are currently working to see if it is responsible for causing birth defects such as the one found in the Hawaiian child.
According to the CDC, children born with microcephaly have smaller-than-usual heads, and the defect may lead to other issues such as seizures, developmental delays and vision problems.
The Brazilian Ministry of Health reported a significant rise in the birth defect since the virus arrived in May. The country used to see fewer than 200 cases per year, but now has about 3,500.
The Hawaiian baby’s mother was living in Brazil last May, the state Department of Health said in a news release, and likely transmitted the virus to her child while he or she was in the womb.
Microcephaly can be caused by a variety of issues including genetic changes, malnutrition, alcohol exposure and certain kinds of infections, according to the CDC, but it’s still a relatively rare defect and only surfaces in about 2-12 babies out of every 10,000 born in the United States.
“We are saddened by the events that have affected this mother and her newborn,” Hawaii Department of Health State Epidemiologist Sarah Park said in a statement.
Hawaii health officials said neither the mother nor the child are currently at risk of transmitting Zika, nor were they ever at risk of spreading the virus throughout Hawaii. The country has yet to see a locally contracted case of Zika, the CDC has said.
However, the Hawaii Department of Health reported six people have gotten infected while visiting foreign countries and returned to the state.
The CDC on Friday sent out updated travel notices for Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, where Zika is found in local mosquitos, asking travelers — especially pregnant women — to “practice enhanced precautions” to prevent mosquito bites. Previously, the CDC had only been asking travelers to “practice usual precautions.”
There isn’t any vaccine against a Zika infection, the CDC says.
“The virus is spreading fairly rapidly throughout the Americas,” Dr. Lyle Petersen, the director of CDC’s division of vector-borne diseases, told reporters during a Friday evening news briefing, according to a transcript posted on the CDC’s website. “We know in populations that it does affect, a large percentage of the population may be become infected. And because of this growing risk of or growing evidence that there’s a link between Zika virus and microcephaly, which is a very severe and devastating outcome, it was important to warn people as soon as possible.”
Petersen told the news briefing that the CDC recently found its “strongest scientific evidence to date” of a link between Zika and “poor pregnancy outcomes” like microcephaly, but more tests and studies were needed to determine the risks the Zika virus may pose to pregnant women.
Common symptoms of Zika include fever, joint pain and rash, the CDC says. However, Petersen told the news briefing that only 1 in 5 people infected with the virus will display those symptoms.
Petersen also told reporters there have been at least eight United States travelers who tested positive for Zika after traveling overseas in the past 15 months, compared to just 12 who tested positive for the virus between 2007 and 2014. And the CDC is also still receiving samples from people displaying symptoms, so that number could increase as more test results come back.
While the specific kind of mosquito that transmit the virus are present in parts of the United States, Petersen told reporters that improvements in housing construction, air conditioning and mosquito control have helped prevent large outbreaks of other mosquito-borne illnesses.
He told the news briefing it would be difficult to determine exactly how Zika may spread in the coming months.
“I think we’re just going to have to wait to see how this all plays out,” he told reporters. “These viruses certainly can spread in populations for some time. But, again, this is new. This is a dynamic and changing situation. I think it’s really impossible for us to speculate what may happen in three or four or even next month for that matter.”
Separately, Hawaii is dealing with another outbreak of a mosquito-borne illness.
The state Department of Health says there have been 223 cases of dengue fever since Sept. 11. It’s the first locally-acquired outbreak of the disease since 2011.
The World Health Organization says dengue, which can cause fevers, headaches, muscle and joint pains and rashes, has become increasingly common in the past 50 years — spreading to more than 100 countries and placing about half the world’s population at risk of an infection.