Figure a noted increase from last week’s estimation of 157 infected nationwide.
As the U.S. braces for what could be a widespread epidemic in the coming summer months, federal health officials said today that they believe thousands of people may have contacted the Zika virus before returning to the country.
Speaking before a panel at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Anne Schuchat said the Zika virus represents “a phenomenal problem” for experts as they attempt to understand its potential impact globally and domestically.
“The reality is one bite, and if you’re pregnant, your baby might be harmed,” Schuchat said at the panel, who previously lobbied in support of the Obama administration’s proposal that Congress allocate $1.9 billion to combat the mosquito-borne virus.
Last Friday, the CDC released a statement confirming that 157 women in the United States and another 122 in U.S. territories had tested positive for infection from the virus, marking the first time the department officially disclosed contraction figures since the virus’ outbreak first began in early 2015.
As summer approaches, officials are issuing dire warnings that mosquito eradication efforts, lab tests, vaccine research, and other suggested methods to combat its potential spread may not be able to catch up.
Common symptoms of the virus include fevers, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, with approximately one in five people infected showing visible symptoms.
More disturbingly, the virus has also been linked to the birth defect microcephaly, a defect characterized by a malformed/smaller head and brain, resulting in serious developmental delays.
Schuchat said in particular at today’s panel that health officials are greatly concerned about the possibility for the virus to be locally transmitted from infected travelers to neighboring misquito populations, who can then infect others.
“We’re not starting in a good place,” she said, “We used to have a lot stronger mosquito control and mosquito surveillance. We really have a patchwork nation around mosquito capacity. The local governments are really concerned.”
While it was officially estimated at the panel that approximately 500 people in the U.S. were found to have likely been infected with Zika, since 80 percent of people with an infection do not visibly show symptoms, the CDC is preparing itself for the probability that thousands may have arrived in the U.S. unaware that they were infected.