Illinois blood centers to implement testing for Zika

Photo at top: Aedes Aegypti mosquito, courtesy of Flickr

By Teresa Manring

LifeSource blood centers will implement testing of donated blood supplies for the Zika virus by Nov. 18 to meet a Food and Drug Administration recommendation that all U.S. blood centers test for the disease.

LifeSource operates community blood donation centers in the state and distributes blood to approximately 60 area hospitals. Blood testing will be implemented on or before Nov. 18, said Eva Quinley, regional executive director of LifeSource.

“We live in such a mobile society that travel is always an issue so we are already asking donors questions about travel and if they’ve had sexual contact with someone who may have traveled to a Zika endemic area,” Quinley said. LifeSource is refusing donations from individuals who may be at risk, and asking them to defer donating for 28 days, she said. “Zika has put a strain on the nation’s blood supply,” she said and added that LifeSource encourages individuals who can donate to do so as often as possible.

Public health officials assess the Zika virus threat at a hearing with state senators in Chicago on Tuesday.
Public health officials assess the Zika virus threat at a hearing with state senators in Chicago on Tuesday. (Teresa Manring/Medill)

“There is a strong possibility that Zika virus can be spread through blood transfusions,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The CDC website noted that there have been cases of Zika spread by blood transfusion in Brazil.

As a precaution, the FDA last month recommended that all blood centers implement testing for Zika in donated blood. The FDA initially recommended that only areas with active Zika transmissions test donated blood for Zika, but the new recommendation is for “all states and US territories to screen individual units of donated” blood.

Even though the chance of the virus being transmitted by mosquitoes locally is very low, Chicago’s standing as a major transportation and travel hub means that local health officials are still dealing with Zika on a regular basis. “Just in Chicago, we’ve gotten over 1,400 requests for Zika testing,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, chief medical officer at Chicago Department of Public Health. She spoke at a public health hearing held in Chicago Tuesday by the Illinois Senate’s Public Health Committee. All of the requests came from travelers, she said.

“More than 700,000 people from Zika affected countries came through O’Hare airport last year. So even though we don’t have the mosquito of primary concern, this is still a concern in Illinois,” she added.

Despite the hot summer and the outbreak of cases in Florida, the threat of contracting the Zika virus locally in Illinois remains very low, state and local health officials at the hearing stressed.

Tests have confirmed that 72 people in Illinois have contracted the mosquito-borne virus, which can cause microcephaly in babies when it’s transmitted from mother to fetus, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, at the hearing. “Each and every one of those cases is in someone who traveled to another part of the world,” he added.

So as the weather gets chilly here, travelers seeking warmer climates would be wise to take precautions, officials said. The infection has been confirmed in several countries in Asia, including Singapore, the CDC has reported. It may be spreading to others such as Thailand, which is currently investigating possible Zika-linked cases of microcephaly, the Guardian reported yesterday.

“The rate of new Zika cases in Illinois seems to be somewhat related to vacation plans and vacation patterns,” Shah said. “For that reason, as we move into the winter season, we might see additional cases as folks vacation in warmer places in the world.”

Vacation planners should keep in mind that it has been winter in Central and South America for the past few months, so countries such as Brazil have seen lower numbers of new cases of Zika virus. However, as the southern hemisphere moves into summer during our winter, “we anticipate that there will be an uptick in [Zika] cases” coming out of these countries, Shah said.

Shah stressed that the risk to Illinois residents who don’t travel is very low because the main species of mosquito that transmits the virus, Aedes aegypti, has not been found in Illinois for 20 years. Another species of mosquito that can carry the virus and is found in Illinois – Aedes albopictus – has been found in Skokie, according to the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District. The district had collected a total of 56 of the mosquitoes through Sept. 23. But, so far, this type of mosquito poses a very low risk to humans because there isn’t proof that the mosquito can actually infect humans, Shah said.

For those who do get Zika, the chance of actually experiencing symptoms is low, said Shah. Only about one out of five people who contract the virus get symptoms, which include fever, rash, red eyes and muscle aches.

Currently, almost 60 countries and territories are experiencing “active Zika outbreaks,” according to a CDC map. These are countries where the virus is known to have been transmitted locally. The CDC recommends that travelers planning trips outside the US should stay up to date on the most recent travel notifications on the Zika Travel information page of the CDC website.

In the US, there have been 43 locally transmitted cases of Zika so far, according to the CDC. All have occurred in Florida.

Photo at Top: The Aedes aegypti mosquito carries the Zika virus and transmits the virus to humans when it bites. (Flickr)