Georgia will almost certainly see cases of the Zika virus, health officials said Thursday. And experts warned the state may have a higher risk of the illness spreading due to its mild weather and busy airport.
Georgia currently has no documented case of the mosquito-transmitted virus, which presents little danger to most people but has been linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil. Concern over the virus has been escalating as the cases, spreading rapidly through Latin America and the Caribbean, have made their way to the U.S.
Currently, there are some 31 confirmed cases in 11 states around the country.
The World Health Organization announced Thursday that the virus is “spreading explosively” across the Americas, and that the group will hold an emergency meeting to find ways to stop its transmission.
U.S. health officials have warned pregnant women to postpone trips to countries where the virus has been spreading since last May. Zika is suspected to be linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes brain damage and abnormally small heads.
That’s all Heather Owens had to hear. The Atlanta project manager, who is 21 weeks pregnant, cancelled the all-expenses-paid trip to Cancun provided by her company.
“The risk that it would cause a deformity (in my baby), which I would have to live with forever, was not worth it,” said Owens, who won the trip for her job performance. “If I would even see a mosquito flying around me, I would panic.”
Airlines are advising customers to contact customer service, as they may qualify for free changes or refunds.
In general, Zika had been considered relatively mild. Few people even develop symptoms, which can include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. But as these outbreaks spread through the epicenter of Brazil, officials discovered numerous instances of children with birth defects associated with microcephaly.
Georgia officials say it’s just a matter of time before an infected person steps off a plane from one of the counties with actively spreading infections.
“We expect that to happen,” said Dr. Cherie Drensek, the state epidemiologist.
It’s unclear whether the illness will spread in Georgia, she said. Zika is transmitted when a mosquito feeds on an infected person and then takes another blood meal from someone else.
U.S. health officials said Thursday that they do not expect widespread infections across the country.
Georgia health officials said they could not say whether the state is at greater risk for outbreaks, but an epidemiologist at the University of Georgia said several factors raise the stakes here.
Georgia, and particularly the Atlanta area, is home to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield serves flights from several of the countries where the virus is spreading.
The state is also home to both of the types of mosquitoes known to spread the virus, Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito) and Aedes albopictus (the Asian tiger mosquito.) Moreover, the state has a longer mosquito season than other parts of the country, lasting from March through October.
“I’m afraid if Zika comes to the Southeast, there’s a very strong probability we will get local transmission,” said Nancy Hinkle, a UGA entomology professor.
Zika is a relatively new virus to the Western Hemisphere, which means there is little resistance to it. Scientists are studying the virus to intensify the fight to stop its transmission.
Clinical trials on a vaccine could start as early as this year, U.S. health officials said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying whether Zika is related to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder where a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes, paralysis.
While metro Atlanta has another month or so before mosquitoes appear, officials urged people to take action on their own to prevent mosquito bites. The bugs can breed in even small pools of water, so people should empty any outdoor containers and bird baths.
Some local mosquito control companies say they are already receiving inquiries from people concerned about Zika.
Matt Brill, an owner of Mr. Mister Mosquito Control in Atlanta, said a dozen people have called with questions.
“When these diseases come around, we get a lot of calls,” he said. “People say ‘I have to protect my home.’”
Staff Writer Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this story.