State health officials across the southern U.S. are working to prevent a widespread outbreak of the disease, after health officials have raised concern about higher risk in warming weather.
Currently there are 367 confirmed cases of the Zika virus in the U.S. The vast majority were contracted through travel to areas where the virus is actively spreading, outside the U.S. A small number of the cases were spread through sexual transmission.
The effects of the Zika virus are worse than health officials previously thought, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Intitutes of Health (NIH) said in a joint announcement at the White House yesterday.
"We continue to be learning pretty much every day and most of what we’re learning is not reassuring," Dr. Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the CDC, said. The virus is, "linked to a broader set of complications in pregnancy."
In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the CDC confirms the virus is spreading directly from infected mosquitoes to people. Schuchat said they estimate hundreds of thousands of people in Puerto Rico could become infected with the Zika virus. In turn, that could mean hundreds of babies may be born with birth defects.
Earlier this month, the CDC held a summit to educate local state departments on prevention and treatment for the Zika virus. The agency recommends reducing the mosquito population, which spreads the virus, and monitoring the existing populations of insects to ensure they are not spreading the disease. They are also asking local health departments to reach out to pregnant women so that they are aware of the risks.
Several states, including Florida, have already begun to take action. In Florida, a state of emergency was declared in counties where people have tested positive for the Zika virus and the Florida Department of Health is already conducting surveillance of mosquitoes to monitor whether the virus is present in living insects populations.
The state also established Zika hotlines earlier this year and Governor Rick Scott has called for thousands more Zika tests so health officials can quickly identify any infected residents.
In Texas, the state health department is reaching out to local leaders to eliminate conditions that would encourage mosquitoes to breed in certain areas. The state’s health department has also created an action plan in case of an outbreak and a team that will focus on potential birth defects from the virus.
In Louisiana, the state health department is working to monitor both mosquitoes and people for the disease.
"We have signs up in airports and ports encouraging travelers to be aware of areas of active transmission and protect themselves from mosquito bites," a department spokesperson told ABC News. "We are advising pregnant women to avoid travel to active transmission areas. At home, people should also protect themselves from bites and make sure their homes are prepared by checking that screens are intact and emptying standing water, especially in small containers.
"We are working together with local mosquito abatement programs, as well as health care providers," he added. "To help them recognize the symptoms of Zika."
In the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where the virus is already spreading, health officials are giving pregnant women special mosquito protection kits. The kits contain insect repellent, vouchers for screens to put in windows and condoms, since the virus can be spread through sexual contact.