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New Jersey Physician Downplays Potential Impact of Zika Virus as State and Local Agencies Prepare

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HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has confirmed several dozen cases of the rapidly-spreading Zika virus in the United States and a township physician says it won’t be long before people in New Jersey are susceptible to the mosquito-borne disease.

On Monday, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency because of its suspected links to birth defects.

The Zika virus is spread to people through mosquito bites.

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“It’s not a big risk here yet, but it could increase as time goes on,” said Dr. David Herman, one of 34 physicians in IDCare, New Jersey’s largest practice of infectious disease specialists.

One case has been reported in New Jersey; a woman from Colombia was infected by the virus in her country and became ill during her visit in Bergen County last month. She was briefly hospitalized and returned home.

“The biggest risk is to pregnant women,” Herman said. “That’s the biggest worry,” he added, noting that the worldwide medical community is advising woman not to become pregnant until the virus can be controlled.

There is no known antidote for the Zika virus, according to Herman.

“There are no vaccines yet and it could be some time,” he said. “The only prevention is to avoid getting bit.”

The Aedes mosquito is responsible for the spread of the disease to more than 27 countries and territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the CDC.

“They are aggressive biters during the daytime, Herman said. He recommends mosquito repellant as the best defense against being bitten.

Symptoms can include rash, joint pain, fever, back pain, conjunctivitis, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. Zika is in the same family of diseases as yellow fever, dengue, West Nile, and Japanese encephalitis viruses.

The outbreak began in Brazil in May, 2015; health officials have strong suspicions that an increased number of microcephaly cases since then is linked to the Aedes mosquito. Microcephaly is a condition that causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and damaged brains.

The Aedes mosquito is also known to spread dengue and chikungunya. There are no known, natively transferred instances of Zika in the United States, but the Aedes mosquito has a range that covers much of the southeastern United States.

Mosquito activity in New Jersey will increase as the weather becomes warmer and after the larvae have incubated and hatched, according to Herman. However, he emphasized that well-established seasonal mosquito spraying programs operated by the New Jersey Mosquito Control Commission combined with their counterparts on the county level should be able to contain and control the virus.

The Department of Health has been conducting conference calls with healthcare providers, maternal and child health providers, and public health officials (so far more than 400 have participated) to share information and increase awareness of the Zika virus, according to spokesperson Nicole Mulvaney.

Topics covered in these calls include information about the disease such as symptoms, travel guidance, guidelines for testing of pregnant women and infants, and critical preventive measures.

“The Department has also emphasized with clinicians the importance of taking a thorough travel history of patients,” Mulvaney said.

“In addition, we have outlined the CDC criteria for testing and provided our Communicable Disease Program’s contact information to providers to help advise them as they manage patients,” she added.

“We don’t expect to see outbreaks in the United States like the one going on in Caribbean, Central and South America,” she said citing the CDC’s experience with Dengue and Chikungunya.

Additionally, the Department has shared CDC information, guidance and alerts via the  New Jersey Local Information Network and Communication Systems (LINCS) alert system and have posted all those materials on the Zika website http://www.nj.gov/health/cd/zika/index.shtml with a specific tab (Technical Info) for healthcare providers.

The state DOH has been sharing information with the public through social media channels which are:
Twitter https://twitter.com/NJDeptofHealth 
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/NJDeptofHealth

“The type of mosquito that has been implicated in the transmission of the Zika virus is a tropical species, not sustainable in New Jersey," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “That said, our message to the county commissions is that we will be stepping up monitoring and will be looking especially for this type of mosquito.”

One area of concern is airports and ports where cargo ships unload, according to Hajna.

A federal agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service maintains vigilance at Newark Liberty International Airport and Ports Newark and Elizabeth, Hajna explained.

“They are always on the lookout for invasive species on a routine basis,” he explained. “We’re probably going to see a stepped up effort there.”

IDCare has nine offices throughout New Jersey including Princeton, Somerset, Cedar Knolls, Randolph, Oakhurst, Wayne, Pennington, Old Bridge and its main office in Hillsborough.

Further information is available by calling (908) 281-0221, or visit the website at IDCare.com

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