Health Dept: Zika outbreak unlikely in Vermont

1 year ago
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St. Michael’s College Professor Patti Delaney recently took a trip to Brazil to assess any risks — including the prevalence of Zika virus — that may exist for students traveling to the country as part of a class she teaches later this year.

Delaney, who made the trip in January with another college administrator, said the two will lead 15 students in the spring to the town of Itacare, a coastal community in the state of Bahia. Though the state is located in the area of Brazil where Zika has had the biggest impact, none of the town’s residents have been infected, Delaney said.

The Zika virus “is a potentially very frightening disease,” particularly for pregnant women whose babies can be born with head deformities if the virus is contracted, Delaney said. However, she said she believes the national media may have sensationalized the threat in Central and South America too much over the past few months.

“I think it’s been around and we’ve known about it since the 1940s or 1950s,” Delaney said. “What’s concerning is that it seems to be spreading so rapidly.”

She added, “I think the media, both nationally and internationally, maybe got a little ahead of the facts. … Zika is still fairly low-risk, and even worst-case-scenario, isn’t as devastating as malaria or yellow fever.”

Zika virus cases have been reported in more than half of the U.S. states, including New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but Vermont has yet to see a case within its borders as of Tuesday, said Bradley Tompkins at the state’s Department of Health.

Tompkins, a Health Surveillance Epidemiologist, says an outbreak is highly unlikely in the Green Mountain State, but he is warning travelers to be aware of the virus when visiting affected countries.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website states that common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week. The illness can spread through bites by infected Aedes species mosquitoes, from pregnant mothers to their unborn children, through sexual intercourse and blood transfusions, the CDC states.

The mosquito species that carries the Zika virus is not native to northern New England states like Vermont, Tompkins said. The worst health outcomes are associated with pregnant women who contract the virus, but the virus has a low death rate, he said.

“If you’re pregnant, we recommend that you put off your travel to the countries that are currently impacted by Zika virus,” Tompkins said. “Also, if you’re pregnant and you have a male partner who recently traveled to a Zika impacted country, we strongly encourage safe sex practices with barriers, like condoms, because as we have seen, there can be sexual transmission at least from male to female of the Zika virus. First and foremost, we want to make sure that pregnant women are protected from Zika virus.”

Vermont has been preparing for the possibility of a Zika case, and Tompkins said health care providers have been addressing risks with patients of traveling to Zika-affected areas. Doctors are encouraging people who are ill after returning from the countries or who are pregnant to be tested upon arrival back to Vermont. Thompson also encourages that travelers track the CDC research on Zika and U.S. Department of State’s travel guidelines for affected countries.

“We don’t get any type of notification when people are traveling to one of these impacted countries,” Tompkins said. “Eighty percent of people who get infected with Zika don’t even exhibit symptoms.”

Blood samples of patients who may be infected is sent to the CDC for testing through the Department of Health lab in Colchester. Tompkins said the state is working toward being able to test the samples in Colchester, but that the state does not yet have the resources.

“We’ve developed the guidelines for Vermont clinicians to know under what circumstances their patients should be tested, and how they should be tested,” Tompkins said. Every state will eventually have a “Zika Action Plan,” which will be tailored to the needs and resources of the specific state, he added.

Colleges in the area are also working to educate students who might be traveling to Zika-affected countries about how they should prepare. Neither the University of Vermont nor St. Michael’s College have canceled study abroad programs due to Zika risks, school representatives said Tuesday.

UVM students received an email advisory about Zika virus in late February before spring break, spokesman Jeff Wakefield said.

​Students at Saint Michael’s and their parents are being asked to sign an additional waiver this year if they plan to travel to Zika-impacted countries through a college program, like Delaney’s Brazil trip, said Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs. The college generally tracks the CDC’s website and any travel advisories that may arise, and representatives from Student Health Services meet with students traveling to countries affected by different diseases and health risks before they leave the U.S.

“This year, we’ve bought particularly good trip cancellation insurance that would allow us to cancel trips so we could recover most of our investment,” Talentino said. She said trips could be canceled if conditions in the countries become particularly significant or if more information is discovered about Zika that indicates greater student danger.

“There is a heightened level of concern,” Talentino said. “Whenever we have students traveling even domestically, but certainly internationally, I always have a level of concern. This year, because of Zika, and in previous years because of earthquakes or floods, there could be a heightened level. … It’s certainly not a crisis.”

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