Zika Case in Utah Baffles Health Officials
by Sean Duffy, Court House News, July 19, 2016
(CN) — The caregiver of an elderly Zika patient in Utah has been diagnosed with the virus, raising questions among health officials about how the virus was transmitted.
The Utah Department of Health said Monday that the unnamed patient died after passing the virus to the caregiver, who was a family member. It is unclear whether the virus contributed to the death, although health officials said the elderly patient had an underlying condition.
Zika is normally spread through mosquito bites, though it can also be transmitted through sexual contact. How the Utah caregiver became infected remains a mystery.
The virus has spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean after reports Zika infections and cases of microcephaly — a disorder that leads to an infant's head being smaller than normal, as well as potential brain damage — increased dramatically in mid 2015.
Zika's seeming connection to a host of different disorders and potential methods for transmission have sparked countless studies within the international community and fear among women who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant.
Though a vaccine is still months away and only a few reliable tests are available, progress has been made into determining how the virus is connected to microcephaly and other congenital disorders.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating the case from Utah, though they are not releasing much information to protect the privacy of the patient and family.
"The new case in Utah is a surprise, showing that we still have more to learn about Zika," said Erin Staples, a CDC epidemiologist who's helping in the investigation. "And from what we have seen with more than 1,300 travel-associated cases of Zika in the continental United States and Hawaii, nonsexual spread from one person to another does not appear to be common."
Satish Pillai, the CDC's incidence manager for the case, backed up Staples' statement.
"We don't have evidence that Zika can be passed from one person to another by sneezing, coughing, by hugging or kissing," Pillai said during a press conference.
The Utah man's death was is first Zika-related death in the continental United States. An elderly man from Puerto Rico died in April after contracting the virus.
"The new case is a family contact who helped care for the individual who died from unknown causes and who had been infected with Zika after traveling to an area with Zika," the Salt Lake County Department of Health said in a statement.
Angela Dunn, deputy state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said during a new conference that the patient had an unusually high level of the virus in his blood.
"The deceased patient had traveled to an area with Zika and lab tests showed he had uniquely high amounts of virus — more than 100,000 times higher than seen in other samples of infected people — in his blood," the CDC said.
The first case of female-to-male sexual transmission of Zika was reported last week by federal health officials, after a woman in her 20s contracted Zika while visiting an area experiencing active local transmission of the virus. She transmitted to a male partner after engaging in unprotected sex.