Zika cases in Illinois rise eight-fold in 2016

Nora Shelly, Assistant City Editor

The number of Zika cases in Illinois has risen from two to 16 since January, but city and state officials maintain that there is little threat to residents, according to a public health report released Friday.

Twelve of the 16 infected persons in Illinois are women, and three of them are pregnant, said Melaney Arnold, a public information officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health. All cases in Illinois are travel-related, Arnold said, and there is little threat of further transmission to others. Since all the cases were travel-related, Arnold said the department is not disclosing where exactly in the state the patients with Zika were located.

The Zika virus gained international attention after a resurgence in areas of South America last year and a declaration in February by the World Health Organization that the outbreak was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The virus is transmitted by mosquitos in hot and humid climates and has been reported in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include joint pain, rash and fever but are usually mild, and those infected often are not aware they have the virus.

Zika has also been linked to microcephaly in infants born to mothers infected with the virus. Microcephaly is a condition in which an infant’s head is smaller than normal, and it can lead to seizures, developmental delays or intellectual disabilities.

Arnold highlighted that Zika cannot be transferred simply by being near someone who has the virus.

“Although it is known to be transmitted between a male sex partner and his partner, obviously that’s not going to be the general public,” Arnold said. “So if you’re sitting on a train or a bus next to somebody and you cough or sneeze, right now that’s not known to be the mode of transmission.”

Medill junior Isabella Gutierrez contracted Zika while visiting family in Venezuela during Winter Break and told The Daily in February that she dealt with the virus for more than a week. She added that rest and fluids helped the symptoms pass.

The type of mosquito that transmits Zika is rarely found in Illinois, as it is not able to survive the harsh winters, Arnold said. Another type of mosquito that may be able to carry the virus could possibly survive in Illinois, particularly the southern part of the state, but Arnold said evidence is still being investigated.

Although the Zika virus and the mosquitos that carry it are a concern, Evanston residents should be more worried about mosquitos that transmit West Nile virus, said Carl Caneva, the assistant director of the city’s health and human services department.

“(Zika) is a travel issue, not necessarily a transmittable (disease) in or around Illinois at this point,” he said. 

Caneva said Illinois residents should be concerned about the virus if they travel to areas where the virus is prevalent and heed all travel warnings issued for the region. He emphasized that the main concern when they return home is West Nile virus.

Although the mosquitos that carry Zika and those that carry West Nile virus are different species, the prevention methods for both are similar, said David Zazra, the communications manager for the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District.

Residents should use bug repellent, make sure that windows and doors have tight screens and get rid of stagnant water on their property, Zazra said.

“The most important thing is both the culex mosquito that transmits West Nile virus and the aedes species which carry Zika are container breeders,” he said. “If it can hold water it can breed mosquitoes.”

Although the abatement district is prepared to deal with any potential colony of Zika-carrying mosquitos, Zazra said it is low risk that there would be Zika transmission by mosquitoes within the area.

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