Zika virus found in Harris County

Mosquitos carrying the Zika Vrius have been found in Harris County. Photo credit: Charlene Lee | Lariat Photographer

By Jessica Babb Lariat Broadcast Editor

With the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Latin America, panic has spread as pregnant women have become infected and babies have been born with severe birth defects.

Even though there have been several confirmed cases in the United States, Baylor professor of biology, Dr. Richard Duhrkopf, and assistant professor of biology, Dr. Cheolho Sim, insist that students in Waco have nothing to be concerned about.

The virus has become an epidemic across Latin America and the Caribbean. More than a million people have been infected and nearly 4,000 children have been born with defects like microcephaly, a rare condition in which babies have unusually small heads. In addition, places like El Salvador are even advising women in the country to not get pregnant until 2018.

“The most interesting thing is that we don’t know what is exactly the cause of the birth defects in babies,” Sim said.

“Zika virus has been around for a long time in Africa and Asia and these kinds of things have never been seen,” Duhrkopf said. “We are at a complete loss as to what is going on here. Has the virus mutated? We don’t know.”

Since the infection has become so prominent in many Latin American countries, travel warnings have been sent out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cautioning individuals, primarily pregnant women, from traveling in those areas.

“Many things are still unknown about this virus, so we still need to do more research about what is happening in Latin America,” Sim said. “It can happen in the United States and we can’t predict it at all, so that’s a little bit scary.”

“Everyone should be a little concerned, but for the vast majority says it isn’t that big of a deal to get this infection,” Duhrkopf said. “For pregnant women this is a very serious consideration.”

While the Zika virus is primarily concentrated in Latin America, there have been several confirmed cases of Zika in New York, Arkansas, Virginia and Texas, found in travelers coming back from infected areas. One of the travel- related Zika infections was confirmed in Harris County on Jan. 11, according to the Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.

The virus is closely related to the Dengue fever, Yellow fever and the West Nile Virus and is transmitted person to person through mosquitoes.

“It’s not all that potent or powerful of a virus. Ninety percent of people that get infected by the virus develop flu-like symptoms. They will get a headache, they will get a fever, maybe a little nausea,” Duhrkopf said. “Most of the time these kinds of infections are diagnosed by physicians with simply being the flu.”

While it is possible the Zika virus could spread in regions of the U.S. , at this time of the year, it is highly unlikely, according to both Sim and Duhrkopf.

Americans traveling in Latin America, one is advised to take normal precautions against mosquitos, such as wearing long pants, shirts with long sleeves and repellant.

“This is a quite new and surprising development, but it’s not really new because we have been talking about the Zika virus coming here for years,” Duhrkopf said. “It’s just finally made it here so now we have to deal with it.”