The symptoms of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which came to Texas and the U.S. in February, aren’t terribly frightening for the person who becomes infected. But in Houston this morning, the scariest potential side effect of Zika became a reality: a newborn infant died in a Harris County hospital from complications related to microcephaly, a birth defect associated with the virus. It was the first Zika-related death in Texas.
It’s important to note that Zika, though serious, hasn’t been proven to have been transmitted in Texas. Although there have been more than 1,800 diagnosed cases of the virus in the U.S., the vast majority of them were contracted outside of the country. Mosquitos, which are the primary carriers of the disease, account for somewhere between six to seventeen transmissions that have occurred in the United States. All of those happened in Florida.
When Zika came to the U.S. earlier this year, we noted the risks and prevention tips worth considering—and today’s news, while tragic, doesn’t change them much. Mosquito bite prevention is important, both here in Texas and especially when traveling overseas. If you’re pregnant, it’s a good idea to avoid traveling to countries where Zika is rampant.
Still, there’s something especially frightening about learning that a baby born in Harris County died from a condition associated with Zika. At this point, the continental U.S. isn’t experiencing anything close to an epidemic—1,800 cases in a country this size is barely a blip on the radar, not to mention that outside of a small part of South Florida, those cases have not been contracted locally. But it’s understandable that people are worried. We live in an increasingly global world, and the fear of diseases spreading quickly is real.
Researchers believe that the risk of giving birth to a baby with microcephaly for people infected with Zika while pregnant is somewhere between 1 and 13 percent. That’s a relatively large range, which speaks to how little we know about the virus, even though it’s been documented for more than 70 years. All of this is reasonable cause for awareness: a baby’s death, a disease we don’t know enough about yet, an outbreak in Miami—but if you haven’t been to Latin America lately and you’re feeling anxious, it’s probably best to spend more of your emotional energy wishing the best for the family in Houston that suffered this tragedy.
Zika’s effect on pregnancies is horrible, and we need to be working to address the conditions, but since the disease has not been transmitted locally in Texas, and its outbreak in the U.S. generally is so limited, there’s no need to panic.