Harris County health officials are reporting the first death related to the Zika virus in Texas.
An infant born with microcephaly, a condition where the child has an abnormally small head, died shortly after birth last month. Zika is a known cause of the birth defect. The child's mother did not know she had contracted Zika while traveling in El Salvador earlier this year.
This is the second case of Zika-related microcephaly in Harris County.
“While this is a travel-associated case, we know that prevention is key to reducing the risk of Zika virus infection," said Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. "[HCPH] continues to actively work on protecting the community from mosquito-related diseases, but individuals must also protect themselves from getting bitten by mosquitoes locally and abroad.”
Officials stressed that this case is travel-related and Zika has not yet been identified in local mosquito populations. However, state health officials say they are on alert for local transmission of the virus.
As KUT's Ashley Lopez reported Monday, however, high rates of uninsured Texans may make surveillance of Zika more difficult:
People are less likely to seek help at a clinic if they don’t have insurance, especially if the symptoms are mild. That’s why [Dr. Peter Hotez, the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine] said the state would probably need to spend money doing more active surveillance for the virus – especially in places like the Rio Grande Valley, which is considered vulnerable to mosquito-borne illnesses and has some of the highest uninsured rates in the state. Hotez said surveillance in places like that isn’t complicated, but they are “labor-extensive.”
Last week, the state announced it would begin paying for mosquito repellant for Medicaid patients, in an effort to ward off local transmission of Zika among uninsured pregnant women.
So far, Texas has identified 99 Zika cases, all of them acquired while traveling abroad. Travis County has identified 3 such cases.
The virus is mainly a threat to unborn children, as it can cause microcephaly, so state health officials say they are tracking pregnant women with the virus, in particular.
“Zika’s impact on unborn babies can be tragic, and our hearts are with this family,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, Texas Department of State Health Services commissioner. “Our central mission from the beginning has been to do everything we can to protect unborn babies from the devastating effects of Zika.”