Three pregnant women in Florida contracted the Zika virus while traveling outside of the state, health officials reported Wednesday, as the total number of confirmed cases statewide rose to 32 people.
Pregnant women are considered to be at greatest risk from the virus because of a strongly suspected link between an outbreak of Zika in Brazil and a concurrent spike in microcephaly, a condition in which a newborn’s head is smaller than expected, which can lead to developmental issues.
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The Florida Department of Health, which has declared a public health emergency for the 11 counties with confirmed Zika cases, chose not to name the counties where the infected pregnant women live for privacy reasons, according to an announcement.
All of Florida’s 32 cases of the Zika virus were acquired outside the state, the health department said. Of those, 11 are in Miami-Dade County and four are in Broward.
Reports of possible sexual transmission of Zika virus are based on one published report of transmission from a man to a woman, one published report in which the virus was detected in semen of a man, and one case of possible sexual transmission then under investigation in Texas. There are now 14 new cases of reported sexual transmission.
In January, public health officials in Hawaii reported the first case of a baby born with microcephaly potentially related to Zika. The mother likely contracted the virus when she was residing in Brazil in May 2015, Hawaii health officials said, and her newborn acquired the infection in the womb.
Florida health officials would not offer any additional information about the three pregnant women with Zika, including where the women had traveled, how they contracted the virus or their stages of pregnancy.
Of the 32 confirmed cases statewide, health officials said only three people are still showing symptoms, which typically include a fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes that can last from a few days to one week.
News of the new infections in Florida arrived on the same day that State Surgeon General John Armstrong testified about Florida’s preparations before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Armstrong, among four public health officials to testify at the hearing, outlined the steps Florida has taken to prepare, including daily reports on statewide infections and an information hotline: 855-622-6735.
“We have made it a priority to stay ahead of the possible spread of this virus in Florida,” Armstrong told the committee, according to his written testimony.
We have made it a priority to stay ahead of the possible spread of this virus.
State Surgeon General John Armstrong to U.S. Senate committee
Some committee members questioned whether states and the federal government were devoting enough resources to combating Zika and other infectious diseases.
Senators’ concerns echoed the findings of a new report from the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts that budget cuts have left state and local health departments seriously understaffed and potentially vulnerable if the country has to face simultaneous outbreaks of two or more infectious diseases — such as Zika, new strains of flu, or the West Nile and Ebola viruses.
In response to news of three pregnant women in Florida testing positive for the virus, Gov. Rick Scott said he had requested 250 more Zika antibody tests from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The tests allow individuals to see if they ever had the Zika virus.
Florida has used 255 of the tests since Feb. 9, and the health department has a total of 1,195 antibody tests available.
Diagnosis of Zika is complicated by the fact that four out of five people infected do not show symptoms, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lead U.S. agency tasked with combating the virus’ spread.
The virus is primarily transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are found in Florida, but the CDC reports that Zika can also be transmitted by a man to his sex partners and through blood transfusions. The CDC recommends that men who might have been exposed to the virus consider abstaining or using a condom.
255 Number of additional Zika antibody tests requested by Gov. Rick Scott
This week the CDC reported that as of Feb. 23 the agency and state public health departments are investigating 14 additional reports of possible sexual transmission of the virus, including several involving pregnant women.
As the virus spreads rapidly through Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean, public health officials in the United States and abroad have scrambled to learn more about the long-term effects and transmission of Zika.
Anthony Fauci, an immunologist and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that researchers should be able to establish a definitive link between Zika and microcephaly within months.
“Over the next couple of months,” he said, “you're going to be seeing much more definitive proof of that association.”
There is no vaccine against Zika virus, which remains in a person’s bloodstream from 10 days to two weeks. Once a person is infected with Zika virus, they are immune to future infections, according to health officials.
Zika cases in Florida as of Feb. 24 (all acquired outside state)
Number of Cases
Cases Involving Pregnant Women*
Source: Florida Department of Health