SALT LAKE CITY — A virus long thought to be relatively harmless is now at the center of a growing health crisis, linked to the dramatic rise of babies being born with birth defects in Latin America and the Caribbean.
"Zika has been on our radar for 20 years now," said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. "It just hadn't been observed until recently."
The Zika virus is not likely to take hold in Utah due to its climate and elevation, according to experts.
But women who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant should put "some serious thought and concern" into their travel plans, said Andrew Pavia, chief of the pediatric infectious disease division at University of Utah Health Care.
"If you're pregnant, what is the risk of mosquito exposure where the virus is being transmitted, and is that a risk that you have to take? That’s a difficult decision," Pavia said.
The virus is suspected of causing a spike in microcephaly — a rare birth defect that causes babies to have unusually small heads and abnormal brain development — in Central and South America.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization reported the Zika virus is "spreading explosively" and said it was considering declaring a public health emergency.
Alarm over the virus is growing at a time when many vacationers are hoping to escape the winter in more tropical locales.
Vicki Lybbert, of Saratoga Springs, first heard about the virus in an email from Princess Cruises.
She and her husband are departing for a weeklong Western Caribbean cruise on Sunday. Last week, the cruise company sent Lybbert an email alert about the virus.
"I read up about it and we just decided to take a couple different kinds of mosquito repellent and go from there," Lybbert said. "But then as I heard more in the media about it, then it kind of is more concerning than I had initially thought."
Lybbert, 50, is not concerned about getting pregnant. But she is worried she could spread the virus to her two grandchildren, who live with her.
"We deal with mosquitos a lot (in Saratoga Springs)," Lybbert said.
According to Webb, the Zika virus doesn't spread from person to person.
But the mosquito species that carries Zika — the Aedes mosquito — has been found in Utah before, according to Davis County Mosquito Abatement Director Gary Hatch. He said some were detected years ago in a shipment of bamboo from China.
"I think at some time it will show up here because it's moving throughout the country so much," Hatch said.
But Pavia said it's unlikely the U.S. will see an explosive spread of the virus like in Brazil, where officials have reported more than 4,000 babies with microcephaly since October, or in El Salvador, where the government has gone as far as asking women to avoid pregnancy for two years due to the virus.
"That’s the pattern that we see in tropical areas where there are huge numbers of mosquitos living near people's households. There aren’t screens, there aren’t air conditioners and the level to exposure to mosquitos is dramatically higher than what we see," Pavia said.
Health officials expect to see some cases of the virus in the southern U.S. where the climate is warmer.
Many Utahns travel to foreign lands, including thousands of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church officials issued a statement Friday morning saying they are monitoring the situation:
"Missionaries throughout the world are instructed on how to stay healthy, including avoiding mosquito-borne viruses. The disease prevention principles are the same for any disease that’s transmitted by mosquito. We will continue to monitor this mosquito-borne disease and will provide instructions on prevention to missionaries through their mission presidents,” Eric Hawkins, church spokesman, said.
The rise of the Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere is a sign of larger-scale problems like urbanization and climate change, according to Webb.
With the increasing occurrence of large tropical storms and other climate change phenomena, epidemiologists have seen mosquitos — and the diseases they carry — spreading to new territories, Webb said.
"It's really pretty striking the way these Aedes mosquitos have spread so that they are now common all throughout the Western Hemisphere," Webb said.
Experts say the most dangerous time for a pregnant woman to be infected is in the first trimester.
According to Pavia, researchers believe the virus poses little risk if a woman gets infected, clears the infection and then later becomes pregnant, but he added that the virus is still little-understood.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women who are pregnant postpone travel to areas where the virus is prevalent. As of Thursday, the health agency listed 24 places to avoid, including Mexico and the Caribbean.
All three of the biggest airlines in the U.S. — American Airlines, United and Delta — are offering refunds or ticket changes to at-risk passengers.
“It’s important with all of this to remember that these are early days of understanding a disease that has been relatively unstudied," Pavia said. "Some of the things we think we know now are going to change. Some of the questions that people are going to ask, we don’t have answers for.”