WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, has announced that the United States will not screen arriving travelers for the mosquito-borne Zika virus that is primarily afflicting Latin America and the Caribbean.
Nevertheless, new arrivals who exhibit signs of illness are being “referred to a secondary CBP inspection and may potentially be referred to CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for additional medical evaluation,” revealed DHS in a statement.
“Migrants who exhibit signs of illness when apprehended by CBP attempting to cross the border illegally are separated from healthy people to limit the potential spread of infection,” it adds. “Sick migrants are referred, transported, and escorted for appropriate medical attention as needed.”
Moreover, pregnant women who are at risk of contracting Zika and have been taken into the custody by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a DHS wing, for violating the nation’s immigration laws, are being provided special care.
“Pregnant women in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody who originate from areas determined by CDC to have high incidence of Zika virus will be screened for symptoms of Zika virus by ICE medical providers, receive blood testing for Zika virus based on CDC guidance, and be provided prenatal care while in custody,” noted DHS.
In the United States, the efforts to respond to the Zika virus is being led by CDC component of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Zika transmissions through blood transfusion and sexual contact have been confirmed. The virus has been linked to the neurological disorder known as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains that may not have developed properly. Babies with microcephaly can also suffer from developmental problems and intellectual disabilities.
Zika has also been associated with the rare Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system, causes weakness in the limbs and upper body and can even lead to total paralysis.
President Obama is requesting more than $1.8 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds from Congress to combat the virus and address the U.S. government’s response efforts.
“Based on our current understanding of the virus, enhanced public health entry screening for Zika would not be effective because most people who are infected with Zika are asymptomatic and therefore could not be identified during the screening process,” said DHS in a statement. “Accordingly, CDC is not conducting, or recommending that CBP conduct, enhanced entry screening for Zika, such as active symptom monitoring and temperature checks at ports of entry for arriving travelers. CDC and CBP will continue to coordinate on appropriate measures.”
Some health officials estimate that up to 80 percent of the people with Zika do not show any symptoms. Currently, there is no preventing drug or vaccine to combat the virus.
Active Zika virus transmission cases have spread to 30 countries and territories, including 26 in the Americas, CDC reports.
Although there have been travel-associated cases, no local mosquito-borne Zika virus cases have been identified in the continental United States, notes CDC, adding that such cases have been reported in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and America Samoa, all U.S. territories.
“As part of standard operations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel observe all travelers entering the United States for general overt signs of illness at all U.S. ports of entry,” explains DHS. “This includes all federal inspection services areas at U.S. airports that service international flights, sea ports, and land border ports of entry. CBP officers also observe migrants for overt signs of illness when they are apprehended at U.S. borders while attempting to enter the United States unlawfully.”
“We are deploying mosquito control measures at facilities housing individuals in DHS custody in the limited areas of the country where mosquitoes have transmitted the virus. Preparations are also underway in areas where mosquitoes of the same type are present, but where transmission is not known to have occurred,” it later adds.
DHS is also educating its workforce on the risks associated with Zika.
“We have issued advisories to inform the DHS workforce about the virus and the risks associated with it, and are ensuring appropriate protective measures such as mosquito abatement are in place for DHS employees in affected areas in line with CDC guidance,” points out DHS.
“We are closely monitoring the Zika virus and its impact, and as we continue to learn more about the virus, the Department’s actions and communications with the public and DHS workforce will continue to evolve in line with the overall Federal response,” it continues.
Some experts believe the Gulf Coast region of the United States, home to the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the Zika virus and poverty, is vulnerable to Zika virus transmissions.