Pregnant women are at greatest risk from the virus because of its suspected link to the birth defect microcephaly

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated February 25, 2016 03:40 PM
Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty

Three pregnant woman in Florida have tested positive for Zika virus, state health officials reported Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases statewide to 32.

Pregnant women are at greatest risk from the mosquito-borne virus as it is strongly suspected to be linked to microcephaly, a rare birth defect that causes small head size, developmental issues and sometimes death. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to avoid traveling to the more than 30 countries currently experiencing Zika outbreaks.

All of Florida’s reported cases were acquired while traveling outside of the United States. The state is not revealing the names or locations of the three women to protect their privacy.

In the wake of these new cases, the state of Florida requested 250 additional Zika antibody tests from the CDC. These tests can determine whether an individual ever had the virus, even if he or she is showing no symptoms.

“I appreciate that the CDC has previously supplied Florida with these antibody tests and I ask that the CDC take immediate action to fulfill this request so we can continue to stay ahead of the possible spread of the Zika virus in Florida,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the CDC confirmed that the first case of Zika virus transmission within the United States had occurred through sexual contact. U.S. health officials are now investigating 14 additional reports of sexual transmission, including pregnant women.

The World Health Organization has declared the virus to be a public health emergency of international concern. The rare declaration was spurred by growing alarm over the suspected link to microcephaly.

Cases of microcephaly skyrocketed in Brazil following a Zika outbreak that began in early 2014. There, 508 cases of microcephaly in newborns have been confirmed, with 17 of those cases having a confirmed link to microcephaly, reports CNN. So far, 27 infants have died from the condition and an additional 70 deaths are being investigated along with 3,935 more suspected cases. Colombia has reported more than 6,000 cases of Zika in pregnant women and in the United States, the mother of an infant born with microcephaly in Hawaii was confirmed to have had Zika.

The CDC has advised OBGYNs to test pregnant women who have traveled to affected areas and are experiencing two or more symptoms of the virus. Symptoms include fever, rash, conjunctivitis and joint pain – however, the CDC estimates that 80 percent of people infected with the virus experience no symptoms. Pregnant women without symptoms should be given an ultrasound to check their fetus for microcephaly, the CDC says.

There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, and the only way to prevent infection is to avoid bites from the Aedes mosquito.

“The really tough thing here is for those who may have been infected nothing can be done,” Dr. Laura Riley, director of obstetrics and gynecology infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN. “We’re hunting and looking for something we can’t do anything about. There’s no treatment and no prevention, other than just not getting bitten.”