In tonight’s Republican candidate debate, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson both said they would consider a quarantine to help contain the spread of the Zika virus in the U.S. As of February 3, there have been 45 cases reported in the U.S., with only 9 of them locally acquired. All of the locally acquired cases have been limited (so far) to U.S. territories.
While there have been reports about transfer of the virus through sexual activity and about the presence of the virus in both urine and saliva, mosquito bites remain the predominant means of transmission. Those infected with the virus that develop symptoms usually suffer from a mild flu-like illness, though there have been reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome. More concerning is a possible link to microcephaly – a serious birth defect causing small heads and brains. This has prompted the calls in some Latin American countries for women to avoid pregnancy. (Restrictions on birth control and/or abortion in many of the same countries complicate this recommendation.)
It seems to me that a quarantine for the Zika seems premature, if not ill-advised. Focusing on the virus carriers – mosquitos – makes much more sense. The CDC guidance is for pregnant women to avoid travel to areas affected by the virus, and take strict steps to avoid mosquito bites should they travel to those areas.
More attention is necessary on both diagnostic tests and vaccines for Zika. Vaccines are currently unavailable and diagnostic tests are limited to the CDC and some state and local health departments. The World Health Organization has declared the recent spread of Zika a Public Health Concern, primarily due to the cluster of Guillain-Barre and microcephaly in Brazil. Part of the advice presented on dealing with the virus is to not ban travel to Zika-affected regions, but to provide travelers with up-to-date information on the virus and means of preventing transmission. That probably won’t stop Governor Christie from instituting a quarantine in New Jersey if he thinks it necessary. He overstepped with his quarantine on Ebola, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries it again.