Local specialist says still no vaccine for Zika
Zika virus disease is spreading to new areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an effort to raise awareness about the illness, a local multi-specialist in the field of public health updated members of the Charles County Medical Society about the progression of the virus and its devastating effects on pregnant women.
The medical society held a general membership meeting April 28 and invited Dr. Howard Haft, deputy secretary for public health with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Haft spoke about preventing birth defects through Zika intervention. Held at the Charles County Government Building, the meeting focused on the impact that Zika has in the state of Maryland as well as how the local health departments can now send tests for acute Zika cases.
“It’s crystal clear that the virus causes neurological impairments and birth defects in children. When it originated in Brazil, we knew about babies being born with abnormal head shapes, otherwise known as microcephaly,” Haft said.
Haft has been leading Maryland’s effort to prevent Zika virus from becoming a public health threat in the state. He has 27 years of clinical experience in primary internal medicine and 10 years of hospital-based emergency medicine, clinical and leadership experience. Most recently, he served as chief medical officer at Health Partners, a Waldorf-based charitable clinic serving Charles County and surrounding areas.
“Although the Zika virus is similar to the chikungunya virus and dengue virus, it’s so interesting because we’ve never had a disease like this that can be transmitted by mosquitoes and cause birth defects and is also sexually transmitted. Those things have never happened before,” Haft said. “That makes scientists scratch their heads and say, ‘What is this new kind of threat?’”
To date, one case of Zika infection has been detected in Maryland: in a patient who had recently traveled to a country where Zika transmission has been active and ongoing.
Dr. F. George Leon, president of the Charles County Medical Society, said there are currently 2.2 billion people living in areas that are “at-risk” for the illness.
“The virus seems to have a particular affinity to the developing brain and the primary focus is avoiding intrauterine infection at any stage. This means avoiding contracting the virus via mosquito, sexual intercourse, oral intercourse and receiving tainted blood products,” Leon said.
According to Leon, 50 percent of pregnancies are not planned — so the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is worried about Zika virus transmission to women who can become pregnant or are already expecting.
“Men can transmit the virus to women sexually, so we warn men who travel to Zika-infected areas, whether they are infected or not, do not have unprotected sex for two months whether they’ve had Zika symptoms or not,” Haft said.
Primary carriers of the Zika virus are the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito, which typically bite humans during the day. The virus’ symptoms in- clude conjunctivitis, muscle aches, bone pain, headache and mild viral symptoms.
“Physicians can now send a sample of the blood to be tested for the virus, but we don’t have testing for semen yet,” said Dr. Dianna E. Abney, health officer for Charles County. “Also, the patient’s blood has to be approved for testing through the local health department, but it’s based on specific guidance from the CDC. As we have more experience other testing will be recommended and even made mandatory. There’s a spectrum and we don’t know where it’s leading us yet, but at least now we are looking at it and we will find more things out.”