Referring to Nassau University Medical Center as a public safety net, its chief executive Friday announced the hospital will offer Zika virus testing for patients who have recently returned home from mosquito hot zones.
The viral infection has become an unexpected and explosive pandemic throughout parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, according to the World Health Organization, which is marshaling experts to address a rising tide of human misery while escalating the fight against carrier mosquitoes.
Locally, a team of NUMC doctors announced the establishment of Zika virus testing stations within the hospital, attributing the need to Nassau County’s large Central American population and the amount of U.S. tourism to endemic regions.
“What we’re concerned about is pregnant women,” said Dr. Victor Politi, NUMC’s chief executive. He underscored that most cases of the infection are mild, flulike and typified by conjunctivitis — red eyes.
Medical investigators in Latin America strongly suspect — but have not confirmed — that the virus causes microcephaly, a congenital birth defect marked by small head size and poor brain development. The condition emerged in epidemic proportions throughout Brazil at the same time that the mosquito-borne infection began sweeping across vast swathes of Latin America.
Dr. John Riggs, NUMC’s chairman of obstetrics and gynecology, said the virus raised many questions and challenges. No one knows in which trimester of pregnancy the virus might cause microcephaly, he said.
“There really is no treatment other than termination of the pregnancy and we really don’t recommend that,” Riggs said.
Public health officials in Brazil have asked women to avoid pregnancy while authorities battle virus-carrying mosquitoes and further study the association between the virus and the birth defect.
Dr. Anthony Boutin, who heads NUMC’s emergency department, said worried patients returning from endemic countries have increasingly expressed concerns about the virus. “We have had several inquiries over the last several weeks,” Boutin said, noting that patients are examined through strict hospital protocols in his department.
Anyone who has developed symptoms within four weeks of travel to endemic regions — or who has had sexual contact with someone exposed to Zika mosquitoes — will undergo blood and urine sampling. Specimens will be sent to Wadsworth Center, the state health department’s laboratory where experts can confirm the virus, Boutin said.
Politi noted that a recent NUMC retrospective examination of all mosquito-linked infections revealed that one specimen was definitely caused by the Zika virus and not any other so-called flavivirus. That family of pathogens includes West Nile, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever.
As of Friday, Wadsworth Center has confirmed 21 Zika cases statewide, which include five in Suffolk and one in Nassau. In New York City, there have been eight confirmations, including one case involving a pregnant woman. Health authorities have not discussed details of the pregnant woman’s condition, citing patient confidentiality laws. The additional cases in New York involve patients in six other counties.
Zika virus is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and its close cousin, Aedes albopictus, the notorious Asian tiger mosquito. Both insects are airborne menaces that are in flight throughout most of the year in affected regions of the world.
Although there is no evidence of Aedes aegypti in New York, Aedes albopictus — a daytime flyer and sneak-attack biter — is on Long Island and elsewhere in New York. The mosquito usually attacks from behind, nipping at the back of legs and arms.
Last month, Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, Nassau County’s commissioner of health, said experts would start setting mosquito traps in strategic sites throughout the county in April. There is no evidence of Zika virus in New York, outside of imported cases, Eisenstein said, and mosquitoes are not in flight here during winter.
More than 30 countries and territories have been listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as areas for U.S. travelers to avoid because of ongoing Zika viral transmissions. On Thursday, the CDC added two additional destinations to avoid: Aruba and Bonaire, both in the Caribbean.
Doctors also suspect, and are further investigating, an association between Zika virus and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which components of the immune system become warring turncoats and attack specific nerves. The result is extreme weakness, even paralysis in some people.
The syndrome, though rare, generally emerges after a bacterial or viral infection. Zika virus may be one of the conditions that leads to the syndrome, some experts say.
Patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome usually first report weakness and tingling sensations in their legs. Eventually, the weakness can become generalized, attacking the arms and the rest of the body.