On Martha’s Vineyard, Zika virus remains a distant threat

This poster on a wall in a health center in the town of Cuparaque warns of the dangers of mosquito borne illnesses. – Photo by Penny Wong

Members of Martha’s Vineyard’s large Brazilian population remain insulated by the New England winter from the mosquito that carries the Zika virus, now spreading across their homeland, and at the heart of an international public health emergency.

But as recent news reports have shown, while cold weather may hinder the movement of the Aedes mosquitoes that transmit the disease, the virus itself may be transmitted anywhere in the world through blood and sexual contact.

The most common symptoms of Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild, with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.

Most at risk from the disease are women who may become, or are, pregnant. The Centers for Disease Control report that infection may cause a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly (a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared with babies of the same sex and age), and lead to other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant.

The CDC recommends that women who are pregnant (in any trimester) consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has asked that anyone who is pregnant who has traveled to one of the areas where Zika is prevalent to contact hospital staff.

This week, members of the Island’s Brazilian community spoke about the reaction to Zika on-Island and at home, and how it has affected plans to travel, or welcome friends and relatives.

Warnings everywhere

Francine Rodabel, a Brazilian Islander, arrived in Mantenópolis, Espirito Santo, Brazil, in the southeastern part of the country, on Dec. 11 with her two school-age young daughters. Her plan is to return to the Island on April 15. “Everywhere you go in the area I am at,” she said in a phone conversation with The Times, “you see signs, posters alerting the population on how to prevent the Zika virus or dengue, as the same mosquito that transmits dengue fever transmits the Zika virus. The Mantenópolis Town Hall is doing the best they can, asking people to get rid of containers that have stagnant water so that mosquitoes can’t lay their eggs, etc.”

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on Zika, dengue virus is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics. As many as 400 million people are infected yearly, according to the CDC. There are not yet any vaccines to prevent infection with dengue virus, and the most effective protective measures are those that help avoid mosquito bites.

Ms. Rodabel said she is staying in a part of Brazil that has so far been spared high infection rates. “There are many individuals who have suspected that they might have contracted the virus in this area, but there haven’t been any confirmed cases that I know of in this area. However, the Brazilian UBS [Basic Health Unit] is underfunded, and doesn’t have enough pediatricians or training to accommodate the demands that an epidemic can cause,” she explained. “We’re doing the best we can to protect ourselves by using repellent and staying alert. The repellent prices have skyrocketed ever since Zika virus became an epidemic. I intend to bring myself and my two daughters to the hospital on the Island when we arrive in order to make sure we are healthy. The symptoms can take up to 10 days to show up, and I want to make sure we are safe.”

No sense of panic

Penny Wong, director of the Grace Preschool in Vineyard Haven, is married to a Brazilian man. She and her husband arrived in Cuparaque, Minas Gerais, Brazil, on Feb. 14, and will return to the Island on Feb. 28.

“It is too hot down here,” she said by Facebook message. “We’re in the small town of Cuparaque in Minas Gerais. Just last night we were talking about it, and people were shocked that it is all over the news in the U.S. Apparently, according to local gossip, there are two known cases in this region, but it is being said that the people had traveled to other areas of Brazil and contracted it there.”

In general, she said, people do not seem overly concerned. “I think there is talk about couples waiting to become pregnant until there is more information, but there is not a sense of panic down here. I was surprised that there was absolutely nothing posted at the Rio airport. In the past I’ve seen posters warning about dengue and mosquito control, but nothing this time.”

“We talked to the head nurse at the Cuparaque health center, and she said there have been a few cases of Zika here, but more dengue. People are not really worried, only women who want to become or are pregnant. She said the government is advising people to use repellant three times a day, and if you get the Zika virus, to wait six months to a year to get pregnant,” Ms. Wong said. “I definitely would not have come to Brazil if I was planning to get pregnant.”

Pregnancy concerns

The decision to postpone a second pregnancy was not an easy decision for Alcione Da Silva, but a necessary one. She is an American citizen. Her husband, Antônio, is not.

In order to obtain a green card that will allow him to work legally, Mr. Da Silva must return to Brazil for an interview at the American consulate in Rio de Janeiro.

The prospect of traveling to Brazil has affected the couple’s family planning. Mrs. Da Silva said, “I’m 32 years old, and I have lived in the United States for 17 years. I am an American citizen, and we have waited four years for my husband to get called for this interview. I want to get pregnant this year, as I have a 5-year-old son. However, my husband’s interview was finally scheduled, and we will be going to Brazil in March. I will postpone our plans for a second pregnancy until we are in the United States. It is the safest thing to do.”