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Prevention 'Is The Key' In Fighting Zika, Surgeon General Says


Certainly this summer we've been all hearing a lot about the Zika virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning pregnant women and their partners to avoid parts of south Florida because of the virus. Zika can lead to a serious autoimmune disorder and can cause birth defects in newborns. You might imagine this has caused quite a lot of concern, anxiety and even fear, especially now that the virus has made its way to the continental U.S.

So we thought this would be a good time to check in with the nation's doctor, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. He joined us from his office in Washington, D.C. Dr. Murthy, thanks so much for joining us.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, I'm so glad to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: How many cases have there been in the mainland of the U.S., and how many in Puerto Rico? And how does that compare to the rest of the world where we're seeing Zika?

MURTHY: Well, right now we have over 2,500 cases of Zika in the continental United States and Washington, D.C. The majority of these are travel-associated cases, meaning that people have acquired Zika somewhere else and then have come back to the continental United States. But in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories we have over 9,000 cases, the vast majority of which are in Puerto Rico and the vast majority of which are also locally acquired.

MARTIN: What are the odds of contracting the virus? I mean, not to put too fine a point on it - I mean, really the question for most people is how scared should we be?

MURTHY: Well, right now we don't know exactly what the exact risk is in terms of a specific number. But what we do know is that the risk in Puerto Rico of acquiring Zika has gone up significantly. In fact, we anticipate that if the virus continues to spread on its current trajectory that 25 percent of Puerto Rico residents will be infected by Zika by the end of the year. And that's very concerning to us. In the United States, continental United States, what we've seen is also a growing number of cases of travel-acquired Zika and now two areas within Miami-Dade County where local transmission is happening. And it's for that reason that the CDC recently issued a travel guidance to those two areas in Miami asking pregnant women not to travel there because of the risk of acquiring Zika.

MARTIN: It's just hard to kind of do a risk assessment at a time like this. I mean, you don't really know what to compare it to. So can you help me with that? I mean, trying to get people to kind of make a rational assessment of what the risk is - how should we do that?

MURTHY: You're absolutely right that it's quite challenging. And what is partly challenging about it is that Zika is a relatively new virus in the Western Hemisphere. And we don't have a lot of research on it, we don't have a lot of experience with it. And what that means is that we can't tell people exact numbers around risk. People have often asked, if I am pregnant and get Zika, what is the chance that my child will develop microcephaly, which is one of the birth defects that a fetus is at risk for when the mother has Zika.

And unfortunately, there we can't give an exact number because if you look at the limited data available the risk ranges anywhere from 1 percent to as high as 30 percent, potentially, if you look at Brazil's studies. But what we can tell people is the following - that prevention is really the - is the key because right now there is no treatment available for Zika. There is no vaccine available. We're hoping that that will change with some new research that is underway.

MARTIN: OK, I take your points. But what if you are not pregnant, not planning to get pregnant, and you get Zika? Are there potential consequences that you should be aware of?

MURTHY: If you are not pregnant and not planning to get pregnant, Zika is actually a fairly mild illness. The primary symptoms of Zika are fever, a rash, joint pain and red eyes. But the vast majority of people don't even get symptoms. About 80 percent, in fact, will have no signs - or rather no symptoms of Zika. So, you know, for most people, the virus isn't really bothersome. There's a small - a very small percentage of people who will develop a neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is a condition involving weakness and paralysis that is most often temporary.

MARTIN: So it's my understanding that the odds of getting in a place like Miami Beach are a lot lower than they would be in, say, Brazil or even Puerto Rico. Why is that?

MURTHY: Well, your risk of getting Zika depends on several factors. One, it depends in part on how many people in that area have the Zika virus. Second, it depends on mosquito-related factors - how many mosquitoes are there? It also depends on whether there is a prevalence of air-conditioned spaces in the area. And if you ask the question, for example, are there going to be - is there going to be widespread transmission of Zika all across the United States like what we've seen in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, the answer is most likely not.

But what we will likely see are areas like what we have in Miami-Dade County right now where there's a limited local transmission happening. And that could crop up in other parts of Florida and potentially in other states as well, which is why it's so important for us to focus on the mosquito control, to make sure people are educated about how to prevent mosquito bites, and to keep investing in vaccine development because right now we have phase one trials underway for the - for a candidate vaccine, but unfortunately we're going to need more funding in order to keep those vaccine trials going. But if we can provide that funding, if we can continue the research, my hope is that we'll have a vaccine so that we'll be able to protect pregnant women and others in the future.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is there anything else that you think we should know that I have not asked you?

MURTHY: Well, the bottom line with Zika is that we are still learning more about it every day. But our primary concern is around pregnant women, and so all of us have a role to play. So that means everybody should take steps to reduce the likelihood of getting bitten by mosquitoes. And if you have any concerns about this - that you may have symptoms of Zika or about your risk profile, if you have concerns about whether you should travel to an area where Zika may be spreading, then I encourage people to talk to your doctor to understand the risks.

MARTIN: That was the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy. And he was kind enough to join us from his office in Washington, D.C. Dr. Murthy, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

MURTHY: I hope so, too. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.