Hawaii no stranger to Zika virus

Hawaii no stranger to Zika virus

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In January, the state announced a baby born in Hawaii with microcephaly had tested positive for the Zika virus.

Health officials said the baby's mother had contracted the Zika virus while in Brazil in May 2015.

But the case of the mother and baby with Zika, both of whom were not infectious, aren't the first known instances of the virus in Hawaii.

In the last two years, there have been six known cases of Zika in the state – two in 2014 and four in 2015, said state Department of Health deputy Director Keith Kawaoka said.

All of those who tested positive got the virus abroad, and there has been no local transmission of Zika in Hawaii.

But that doesn't mean officials aren't concerned.

State Rep. Richard Creagan, of the Big Island, said because of the rapid spread of the Zika virus in other parts of the world, Hawaii needs to examine its isolation and quarantine regulations.

Creagan, who is also a doctor, points to the dengue fever outbreak on Hawaii Island as proof enough of the threat of mosquito-borne virus in the islands.

"It would be much more detrimental to tourism even to have a few cases, 10 cases of Zika, than these 250 cases of dengue," he said.

The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. About 1 in 5 adults infected with Zika will actually get sick.

More recently, the most alarming element of Zika has been its link to a serious birth defect called microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads and brains. Health experts now know that the Zika virus can spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby.

The four Zika cases reported in Hawaii last year are among 52 reported nationally, as of Wednesday. None of those cases have been locally-acquired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

House Health Committee Chairwoman Rep. Della Au Belatti said she's concerned about the state's ability to respond to Zika.

She pointed out that the state's vector control branch at the Department of Health was "decimated in 2009" because of budget cuts.

There are currently 25 vector control workers. There used to be twice that many.

Kawaoka, of DOH, agreed that the state needs more resources to tackle dengue fever while also preparing for the Zika threat.

"Right now, I think the resources that we have are getting to the point where we need reinforcements in the forms of additional personnel and additional supplies," Kawaoka said.

The Health Department's now hiring eight more vector agents for the dengue fight on the Big Island.

Meanwhile, at Hawaii Biotech, researchers have begun working on a Zika virus vaccine.

"We've made a vaccine for dengue, made a vaccine for West Nile virus," CEO Elliot Parks said.  "This year we're doing all those things we need to do to develop the Zika vaccine, to demonstrate its efficacy, and to get approval from the FDA to go into humans."

Nationally and internationally, there is significant concern about Zika.

The CDC is advising people, especially pregnant women, to postpone travel to Zika-affected areas.

In the Pacific, Zika travel notices have been issued for American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga, where local transmission of Zika was reported in late 2015. (The highest warnings have been issued for the Americas, however.)

Local transmission means mosquitoes in an area have been infected with Zika and can spread it to people.

To tackle the threat, President Obama wants Congress to release $1.8 billion for a nationwide Zika fight. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D, Hawaii) has made it a priority.

"The president's leadership and emergency request on this urgent issue is warranted and necessary to respond aggressively to the Zika virus early on," she told Congress on Wednesday.

The same mosquito that spreads dengue also can spread Zika. And that's both a good and a bad thing for Hawaii.

"Certainly, our mobilization for dengue has helped in terms of fighting Zika if it does come into the state. We hope it doesn't," Kawaoka said.

See an interactive map of Zika cases by state here.

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