By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Texas health officials are expanding testing recommendations for pregnant women in South Texas as the advent of warm weather increases the risk for local transmission of the mosquito-borne virus that has been shown to cause severe birth defects.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) on Friday recommended testing of all pregnant residents of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata counties in both the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. It is also urging testing for any resident who has a rash plus at least one other common Zika symptom: fever, joint pain or eye redness.
For the rest of the state, Texas is recommending testing for anyone with at least three of those four Zika symptoms and all pregnant women who have traveled to areas with ongoing Zika transmission, including travel to any part of Mexico.
“Zika remains a significant health risk to pregnant women and their babies, and it’s only a matter of time until we see local transmission here again,” DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said in a statement.
He said the state wants to “cast as wide a net as possible” with testing, noting that the Lower Rio Grande Valley remains most at risk.
Texas had six cases of local mosquito transmission of Zika virus disease in Brownsville in November and December. The region is considered a likely place for Zika to spread because of its history of local transmission of dengue, a closely related virus, and its proximity to Mexico, where there continues to be local Zika transmission, including in communities just across the border.
Federal health officials this week reported that one in 10 women with confirmed Zika infections during pregnancy in 2016 had a fetus or baby with birth defects.
With its outbreak last year, Texas became the second state within the continental United States to report local Zika transmission, following Florida, which reported its first locally transmitted cases in July. Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories have reported a total of 36,504 cases of Zika, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Texas is one of several U.S. states with Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry Zika.
There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, which also can be transmitted sexually. An estimated 80 percent of people infected have no symptoms, making it difficult for individuals to know whether they have been infected.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Richard Chang)