The Zika virus is now being transmitted from mosquitoes to people in Cuba, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Saturday, marking another advance in a worrying epidemic potentially linked to a wide range of birth defects and neurological disorders.
The travel advisory comes on the eve of President Obama’s historic visit to the island nation. Hundreds of staff members, reporters, business leaders and members of Congress were expected to travel with the president.
The CDC recommended that pregnant women avoid traveling to Cuba, adding the country to a long list of countries and territories listed in earlier advisories. The CDC also cautioned other travelers to Cuba, which lies less than 100 miles south of Florida, to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, including protecting themselves from mosquito bites and using condoms or abstaining from sex. The virus can be sexually transmitted from a male partner.
Some three dozen nations and territories in the Americas are grappling with local transmission of Zika, including the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Aruba. On March 8, the World Health Organization joined with the CDC in advising pregnant women to avoid areas where the Zika virus is actively spreading.
Though most people who are infected with Zika do not get sick or experience only mild symptoms, the virus is suspected in microcephaly, a serious birth defect in which children are born with undersize heads and underdeveloped brains, as well as Guillain-Barré, a rare neurological syndrome that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. A study this month published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which examined a group of pregnant Brazilian women who tested positive for Zika infection, found that nearly one-third of the women had ultrasounds showing fetal anomalies with “grave outcomes.”
Scientists have not developed a vaccine or treatment for Zika.
Nearly all cases in the continental United States have been limited to infected travelers who brought the virus back home from Latin America or other regions. But based on the spread of previous outbreaks, the CDC estimates that 700,000 people in Puerto Rico – about one in five residents – could be infected by Zika virus by the end of this year.