Dire warning offered on spread of Zika on Maui

HAIKU – Maui County could see 70 to 80 percent of its population contract the Zika virus over the next couple years if the disease takes hold in the county without a vaccine developed, according to the state Department of Health county district health officer.

“This is going to get real worse before it gets better, especially in the summer,” Dr. Lorrin Pang said Thursday night at the Haiku Community Center. “Zika is worldwide. That’s how the future kind of looks like for us. I have no idea what the recommendations are going to be for pregnancies in the middle of a Zika virus.”

An imported case of the virus is suspected of making its way to Maui through a Haiku man who returned from Latin America in February. Pang said there were two other imported Zika-related cases two to three months ago, but they were deemed “cold” or not infectious when they returned.

The infection appears to be linked to birth defects with the development of unusually small heads and brain damage in infants. In adults, the disease has been linked to temporary paralysis.

The World Health Organization has declared an international public health emergency over Zika, and no vaccines or treatments are currently available.

“It’s just alarming how quickly Zika has spread,” Pang said, referencing the international outbreak.

To put the outbreak into perspective, dengue fever infects as many as 400 million people a year and is the leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics. The virus has plagued the world for the past 20 years.

The Zika virus has spread 20 times faster than dengue fever.

“Zika has spread just as much as dengue in one year,” Pang said. “This is phenomenal. This is why the World Health Organization has declared an emergency. They cannot explain why it has spread just as much as dengue in one year. They don’t know.”

By this summer, half the United States will have the mosquito that is capable of spreading the Zika virus, Pang said. It is only a matter of time before international and Mainland travelers come to Maui with the virus.

“If it comes to Maui and we cannot control it, and they don’t come out with a vaccine, then everyone will probably get it – like the chickenpox,” he said.

Pang added that he has “high hopes” that a vaccine will be developed for the Zika virus.

Less than a dozen residents attended Thursday’s meeting, including one woman who is three months’ pregnant and lives within 200 yards of the property of the man suspected of having the virus.

Casey Murphy-Hughes said that Health Department officials inspected her property Wednesday and told her about the suspected Zika case. She said she and her husband have been bitten by mosquitoes over the past two months and also have had unprotected sex.

The virus can be transferred to women through semen of an infected man orally or vaginally.

“I’m just really scared because I live right there and this has been going on,” Murphy-Hughes said. “If I had known, I would’ve used condoms or been taking more action two months ago. I’m just freaked out that it’s too late.

“I’ll see a doctor but, if I have to make a decision to make an abortion, I don’t have too much time.”

Pang said that the condition that causes the small heads, microcephaly, is still being researched and many babies with the Zika virus have yet to be born. He figured that the condition affected roughly 1 in 10,000 babies without Zika, but up to 1 in 100 babies with the virus.

Pang said he is in regular contact with doctors in Brazil, where the virus has infected some 3 million to 4 million people. The physicians have reported that autopsies of 26-week-old aborted fetuses found them “full of the virus.”

He said it is not uncommon for viruses to stay in a woman’s placenta for long periods of time.

“It’s very disturbing,” he said.

A lot still is unknown about the Zika virus, including how long a person’s body can hold the virus, Pang said.

“I think we should do a real good job keeping it out and let the other countries burn out,” he said.

Murphy-Hughes wondered aloud why there were not more people at Thursday’s meeting. She said that she has undergone two ultrasounds, but her child was too small to tell if he or she was affected by the virus.

She expects to see her doctor Monday.

“If this is not a big deal to everyone else, it’s a big deal to pregnant people,” Murphy-Hughes said. “It’s really terrifying to have to either have a baby born brain dead or chose to have an abortion. People really need to be aware on how to protect themselves.”

Pang encouraged the public – especially pregnant women or men planning on having a child soon – not to travel to areas with the Zika virus. He said that the Health Department is making a concerted effort to kill mosquitoes that prey on humans and advised people not to chase the insects into the forests, where they can bite animals.

“We’re trying to kill as many mosquitoes as we can,” he said. “Whatever we do, don’t chase them into the jungle.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.