A Madison County resident who recently traveled to Haiti is the first travel-related case of Zika virus in the state, the Mississippi State Department of Health said Thursday.
Zika can cause severe birth defects if contracted during pregnancy. Pictures of Zika-infected babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly, have become synonymous with the virus.
It also can cause mild illness with fever, joint pain, conjunctivitis or rash, but 80 percent of those infected show no symptoms at all.
The virus is spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact, and it has quickly spread across the Caribbean and Central and South America. It has recently been reported in approximately 30 countries.
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"Pregnant women should avoid travel to these countries," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs. "At this time, the mosquito spreading Zika in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean is not known to be present in Mississippi."
Travel-related cases have been reported in 36 other states and three U.S. territories. No local mosquito-born cases have been reported in the United States.
However, travelers to countries with Zika outbreaks should use caution.
"With late spring and summer approaching, we know it is a popular time for mission trips and vacations to these areas," Dobbs said. "Please be especially mindful of protecting yourself from mosquitoes while you're abroad. Simple steps can make a big difference."
Precautions include mosquito repellent with DEET, and wearing clothing that covers the arms and legs, both while traveling and immediately after returning to the United States.
The health department advises the type of mosquito that spreads the virus -- Aedes aegypti-- has not been detected in Mississippi since the mid-1980s. However, the department is now conducting surveillance on all mosquito populations in the state.
A recent study based on simulations suggested cities along the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans and Mobile, could have a 'high abundance' of the virus-carrying mosquitoes by July.
"The MSDH is working with medical partners across the state to ensure that the most current national guidelines for preventing and testing for Zika are being followed," Dobbs said. "The MSDH Public Health Laboratory now has the ability to test for Zika in-house to allow for rapid turnaround and high volume testing should the need arise."