On the alert for Zika S.C. has no confirmed cases, but mosquito season could change that

Samples of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, responsible for transmitting dengue and Zika, sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Zika may keep some foreign tourists from going to the Olympics, and it also poses a risk for young athletes. There is strong evidence the virus is to blame for an increase in birth defects.

BY EMMA DUMAIN || edumain@postandcourier.com

WASHINGTON — South Carolina is one of just nine states that has yet to confirm a case of Zika, despite it being home to both breeds of the mosquito known to carry the virus. But that could change. Two of the federal government’s top health officials cautioned reporters on Monday that the onset of mosquito season could alter the patterns of where and how the virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects, is spread.

Right now, the only confirmed Zika cases within the continental United States are in those individuals who have traveled to certain places where the virus is most prevalent, such as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Colombia and Brazil.

If South Carolinians aren’t testing positive for Zika, it could simply be because they “are not traveling much to the Caribbean,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

At the moment, people aren’t contracting Zika directly from mosquitoes in their communities, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But possibly as soon as this summer, local mosquitoes that can carry the disease — the Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus — could bite a person who has traveled to one of the Zika “hot spots” and perhaps unknowingly been exposed to the virus. That mosquito can then move on to bite and infect other people. Another worry is the extent to which a Zika epidemic could be spread through sexual intercourse.

There currently are 346 confirmed Zika cases in the continental U.S. and 351 cases in U.S. territories (325 of them are in Puerto Rico). South Carolina’s neighboring states, Georgia and North Carolina, have 11 and 8 confirmed Zika cases, respectively. Of the 86 tests for Zika conducted on patients in the Palmetto State, 84 have come back negative and two are still pending.

Schuchat signaled on Monday that Florida and Texas, large states with heavier traffic to and from Puerto Rico and Latin American countries, will be most closely monitored for local transmission as mosquito season gets underway.

In summoning a group of Washington-based regional reporters on Monday to the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, Schuchat and Fauci were providing a double service.

They were on hand to educate journalists about the virus but also to ring the alarm bell about the severity of the virus, the extent of the unknowns, and the money necessary to get answers and to develop a vaccine and an antidote.

“We’re learning more nearly every day,” said Schuchat, “and much of what we’re learning is concerning.”

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Schuchat and Fauci said that in the months since Zika began to manifest itself in the Americas, the assumption it could only be transmitted by mosquitoes was undercut by evidence it could also be sexually transmitted.

While at first microcephaly seemed like the most severe birth defect associated with Zika, researchers are now finding a whole host of neurological disorders that can occur in connection with the virus, some of which might not present themselves right away.

In February, President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to assist in efforts to curb and control Zika. The Republican-controlled Congress, always reticent to give the administration money outside the regular appropriations process, has not yet acted on the request.

The White House announced on Monday it has identified $589 million in existing funds to be used for these efforts, $510 million of which will come from the accounts reserved to fight Ebola.

But Schuchat and Fauci said it likely won’t be enough.

“We don’t think that it’s just going to be one summer of Zika,” Schuchat said. “We think we’re going to be dealing with this longer term.”

Derrek Asberry contributed to this report. Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.