The U.S. declared the Zika virus outbreak in Puerto Rico a public health emergency on Friday, which U.S. Health and Human Services says means the virus is a “significant threat” to the territory. The declaration comes amid massive spread of Zika through Puerto Rico, infecting well over 6,000 people, including over 520 pregnant women.
In the continental U.S., local mosquitoes in Florida are still spreading the virus. So far there are 25 cases of Zika spread to people from mosquitoes in the area. Still, some polls suggest, like a recent Washington Post-ABC News one, that Americans are not incredibly concerned about the virus.“I’m sorry that people feel that way, but it is a problem,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a recent press conference. “The tragedy of a preventable case of a severe birth defect is something I think we have to make very clear to people.”
Here’s why the virus is of concern.
It takes time before Zika’s effects are seen
Although scientists are still trying to answer basic questions about the virus, it appears that the most at risk time for a pregnant woman to become infected is early in pregnancy. The amount of time between initial infections and the possible births of infants with microcephaly can be several months, which some health officials speculate could be the reason there’s less sense of urgency among the public. “The problem appears a little theoretical because it’s largely asymptomatic and largely in the future,” Frieden told TIME in a recent interview. “We will have babies born with microcephaly.”
The risk for pregnant women and their babies goes beyond microcephaly
For someone who is not a pregnant women, or in a relationship with one, the virus can seem somewhat benign. The symptoms can feel like a summer flu, and the majority of people who get the disease don’t experience any signs of it. Yet, the risk for pregnant women can be tragic. The virus causes the severe birth defect microcephaly, and researchers are unsure how long an infant can live with the serious brain damage seen among babies so far. There also appears to be blindness associated with the virus and abnormal joint development. It’s estimated that up to 6% of pregnant women infected with Zika will miscarry or have stillborn deliveries. Texas recently experienced its first Zika-related death in an infant that was born with microcephaly due to the virus. The child died shortly after it was born.
People who travel can bring the virus back with them
For people who travel to places with active transmission of the virus, authorities are recommending that they try to prevent mosquito bites while abroad, but also when they return. People are the ones who bring the virus to local mosquitoes—the insect will bite an infected person and then bite another individual. This can be harmful to pregnant women living in a community. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, one of the now 25 people infected with local mosquitoes in Florida is a pregnant women in her early 20s who did not travel and did not have sex with anyone who was infected.
Zika is not the last infectious disease to hit the Americas
While Zika is the most recent mosquito borne outbreak to spread rapidly through the Americas, it follows a contagion similar to other diseases that have emerged in the area in the last few years like dengue and chikungunya. Both of which can have serious side effects for anyone infected. Given how often people travel today, among other factors, health experts anticipate that Zika is not the last emerging infectious disease to make its way stateside, which is why adequate funding for such diseases remains important. In a recent Op-Ed in TIME, two public health experts argued Zika is an issue of national security.
While no one is arguing for panic, there are things people can do protect pregnant women in their communities, and encourage legislators to prioritize funding for infectious disease prevention, especially during emergencies.