Putnam Has First Case Of Zika Virus; Federal Lawmakers Call For More Response

Feb 12, 2016

The Hudson Valley has its fourth case of Zika virus after a confirmed case in Putnam County. In addition, a number of U.S. senators are calling for further response to the outbreak. A Putnam County resident has been confirmed positive for Zika virus and a second resident is being tested. Putnam County Department of Health officials made the announcement Thursday, saying both residents had recently travelled out of the country. Dr. Michael Nesheiwat is Putnam County interim commissioner of health.

“And this is a person who returned from one of those regions, came back to Putnam County, had certain signs and symptoms, went to their private medical doctor and, at that time, the private medical doctor contacted the health department, at which time we did further testing and found that we had one resident who tested positive in Putnam County,” says Dr. Nesheiwat. “There is a second resident being tested as we speak.”

He says the two residents did not travel together. To date, local transmission of Zika infection has been identified in 30 countries and territories. Prior to 2015, outbreaks of the virus had occurred only in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Last May the first confirmed cases were reported in Brazil.

Officials earlier this month confirmed Rockland County’s first case of Zika virus in a local woman. The patient had recently traveled to a South American country where Zika virus transmission has been documented. At the end of January, Orange County health officials announced that a resident there who had traveled to South America tested positive for the Zika virus. Westchester also reported a case. In all, the New York state Department of Health says there have been 16 cases, including the four in the Hudson Valley.  

The virus primarily is transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitoes and the infection is associated with severe birth defects. Governor Andrew Cuomo has directed the state Department of Health to expand free Zika virus testing to all pregnant women who have traveled to areas where the infection is ongoing, regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms. The health department and Centers for Disease Control recommend that until more is known, males who have traveled to or live in an area with active Zika virus transmission and are sexual partners of pregnant women, abstain from sex or use condoms. Again, Dr. Nesheiwat.

“And thus far, we know, we know that it’s found in semen and in blood. Therefore, there’s one case in Texas where a gentlemen was in that region, came back and unfortunately infected his female friend,” Dr. Nesheiwat says. “The cases we have here in New York are all people that were in the region and came back to New York. We know that it’s not a blood-to-blood disease. It’s a mosquito-borne disease, so it goes from mosquito to human and, of course, found in the semen in men.”

Dr. Gary Wormser is chief of infectious diseases and vice chairman of the Department of Medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla in Westchester County.

“We’re interested in evaluating in the lower Hudson Valley the impact of the Zika virus on residents here," Dr. Wormser says. "We have a number of faculty at New York Medical College have gotten together once or several times already to help develop a project that would systematically evaluate the impact of this infection on residents of the lower Hudson Valley, particularly those who have gone back and forth or who are planning to go to areas where the infection is occurring.”

He says such an assessment is needed in New York.

“I think right now there’s a lot of concern that’s being raised but very little actual data, mostly anecdotal,” says Dr. Wormser. “We have cases here, we have a case there, but what is the impact more systematically studied.”

Infection with Zika virus is usually mild. About one in five people develop symptoms, the most common of which are acute onset of fever; a rash with small bumps; joint pain and conjunctivitis. No vaccines or medications are available to prevent or treat Zika virus infections.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, on the heels of the confirmed case in Putnam County, is calling on the federal government to appoint a “Zika Czar” who can coordinate among federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and foreign governments. Schumer says the Czar would lead prevention, response and treatment strategies. Schumer believes a move like this could help prevent further spread of the Zika virus this spring and summer and strengthen U.S. response.

Meantime, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, along with two other senators, led 27 of their Democratic colleagues, including Schumer, in sending a letter to Republican leaders emphasizing the importance of prioritizing women’s access to reproductive health care in light of the spreading Zika virus.

They point out that the outbreak could infect up to 4 million people in the Americas, including in the United States. The  World Health Organization  recently declared Zika-linked birth defects a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

The situation regarding Zika virus has been changing as new information develops. The Centers for Disease Control have set up a dedicated website at cdc.gov/zika and the New York State Department of Health has established a Zika Information Line: 1-888-364-4723