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Zika Disease Is On The Rise: Here's What You Ought To Know


There's another big health concern that's all over the news, and it's behind this week's Words You'll Hear. That's the segment where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about in the coming days by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. Today, our word is Zika. That's the name of a mosquito-borne virus that's been detected in parts of the Caribbean and Central and South America, especially in Brazil, where it's being blamed for a spike in birth defects. The Centers for Disease Control has issued travel advisories for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. On Friday, the Hawaii Department of Health confirmed that Zika caused birth defects in a baby born there. The mother likely contracted the virus on a trip to Brazil. We called Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston, Texas.

PETER HOTEZ: Zika comes from the name of a forest in eastern Uganda where the Virus Research Institute nearby in Entebbe discovered the virus from rhesus monkeys in the forest there. So the virus was circulating in Africa. The first human case was in 1954. And no one thought too much of it till it spread to Micronesia and Polynesia beginning around 2007. And now people think it's worked its way around the world to the Western Hemisphere and entered Brazil around 2014, which incidentally coincides with the World Cup soccer game. So some people have alleged that maybe it might have been introduced into Brazil through that route, although it's still controversial.

MARTIN: Why are we so concerned about this?

HOTEZ: We've known for a long time that this virus can produce an illness that resembles other viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, which is characteristically a fever and a rash. And then in a subset of people, they can go on to develop more serious illness. And people more or less thought about Zika virus in the same light. The striking thing that happened, though, was when it was announced by Brazilian authorities from the ministry of health in October that they've seen this sudden explosion in the number of cases of newborn babies with a horrific congenital birth defect known as microcephaly. These are babies with a small head and small brains who the expectation is they will have long-term, serious neurological complications and mental disabilities.

MARTIN: Their health officials in Brazil and in the Dominican Republic, for example, have issued some fairly dire warnings to women who are either pregnant or planning to get pregnant. Are those warnings relevant to Americans at this point?

HOTEZ: I think so. For me - from my perspective, this is scary stuff, and I'm not an alarmist. My perspective is that if you're a woman of reproductive age who's either pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, I would not travel to places where the Zika virus epidemic is ongoing. And I would even take it a step further, and I would avoid places where we think the virus is likely to emerge.

MARTIN: So, Dr. Hotez, who's most at risk for this?

HOTEZ: Well, clearly, in terms of the concern about birth defects, we have to be most concerned about women who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant who live in areas where the mosquito vector - where the Aedes mosquito vectors - the other piece to this that people don't ordinarily appreciate is the link to poverty. When you go into poor areas of Latin America, as well as the southern U.S., what you see is dilapidated housing without adequate window screens or mesh, so they're more likely to be exposed to mosquitoes. And then there's the environmental degradation around - outside the house where there's uncollected garbage that allows mosquitoes to proliferate. We have a lot of poverty on the Gulf Coast. And I'm particularly worried about young women living in poverty who are going to be at risk, potentially, for Zika as we move into the spring and summer months.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Peter Hotez. He's dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, which is at Baylor College of Medicine, and we reached him there in Houston, Texas. Dr. Hotez, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HOTEZ: Thanks for having me and for highlighting this issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.