Pregnant women should avoid traveling to areas affected by the Zika virus, the World Health Organization advised.
The recommendation, issued at a WHO briefing on Tuesday, strengthens the agency’s previous advice to mothers-to-be, that they should consider delaying non-essential travel to these areas.
Also, spreading the virus sexually may be “more common than previously assumed,” based on reports and investigations from several countries, said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD. Health officials have maintained, though, that Zika is mainly a mosquito-borne illness.
In Puerto Rico, CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, warned residents the crisis is coming. But, he pledged, the island territory will have help.
“We will be here as long as the crisis is here,” he said at a briefing at the Puerto Rico Department of Health on Tuesday.
Puerto Rico is ground zero for Zika in the United States, and the outbreak of the mosquito-borne illness here is just getting started. The rainy season starts in April, and mosquito populations are expected to explode.
The greatest threat will be to pregnant women. Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
Public health officials have just weeks to roll out a news public-awareness campaign, get window screens, mosquito repellents, and condoms to an estimated 15,000 pregnant women, and to rid the island of old tires, trash, and abandoned construction debris — anything laying around that might, after a few drops of water, become a fertile breeding ground for the mosquitos that carry the virus.
They’re also working to find an insecticide that will kill the Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Permethrin, the chemical currently used by the fogging trucks that prowl the streets here, no longer works.
If Zika plays out like other mosquito-borne viruses have here, epidemiologists expect that 20% of the 3.6 million people who live here could be infected by the end of the year.
“We may well see hundreds of thousands of cases here,” Frieden said. While the mainland U.S. will likely only see pockets of sporadic local spread of the virus and travel-related cases, “Puerto Rico is behaving more like Brazil and Colombia.”
Frieden advised women on the Island to put off getting pregnant in order to protect themselves, as long as pregnancy prevention is consistent with their personal beliefs.
For women who are already expecting, he advised that they use mosquito repellent with “DEET or other effective chemicals consistently, every day,” seek window screens and air conditioning, and reduce standing water in and around their homes.
Already, the U.S. is sending blood to Puerto Rico in response to concerns Zika might make its way into the island’s blood supply. The first batch of blood products arrived on Saturday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Availability of safe blood products for the residents of Puerto Rico is a major priority for HHS,” said Karen DeSalvo, MD, acting assistant secretary for health.
President Obama has asked congress to approve $1.9 billion in funding to fight Zika at home and abroad. About $479 million of that will flow to Puerto Rico through the CDC and the federal Medicaid program, he said.
After talking with pregnant women on the island and touring labs and health facilities here, Frieden said he was struck by the challenges that lay ahead to combat the spread of the virus.
“The enormity of the needs here are impressive and they are urgent,” he said.