MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program today taking another look at the new epidemic that's getting the attention of world health authorities. It's the Zika virus; it's known to be spread by mosquitoes and it may be linked to serious birth defects as well as a disease that causes temporary paralysis. On Friday, President Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff agreed to work together to develop a vaccine and ways to control the virus - that according to the White House. So far more than 20 countries are affected, including the U.S. because of its Caribbean territory, Puerto Rico. This week, Puerto Rico reported 19 confirmed cases. So we called the commonwealth's epidemiologist, Dr. Brenda Rivera-Garcia, to find out about how things are going. And I started by asking her to describe the severity of the situation.
BRENDA RIVERA-GARCIA: Well, as far as severity, only two have reported hospitalization, and one was an individual greater than 75-years-old. The other was a pediatric hospitalization, and the individual had other signs and symptoms consistent with other diseases that required that hospitalization.
MARTIN: Do you recall when Zika first got on your radar screen?
RIVERA-GARCIA: Very vividly - it has only been two years, barely. When Zika hit, it hit the major metropolitan areas and it spread really quickly. And within basically two months we had positive cases in at least every municipality of the island. And so far, we have been fortunate in a sense that we've just come out of a severe drought. So there's very, very little vector activity at this moment. However, we're starting to see a little bit of more rain, and this situation might quickly change.
MARTIN: Are you confident that the means exist to control the spread of the mosquitoes in Puerto Rico? I mean, I think it's now known that there have been financial difficulties, you know, on the island.
RIVERA-GARCIA: Yeah. And we need to remember, some of the efforts that are more visible - and might present some calming influence on the citizenship - basically our spraying - and we know that the residual spraying is not an effective mode of vector control long-term. The most effective way is actually being able to get rid of any potential breeding sites, any garbage or materials that accumulate on the sides of the roads or near community centers. It's being done, and it's being done mostly by the municipalities at a very local level. And the key issue for us, at the state level, is to make sure that we have enough resources to do surveillance and to follow the spread of the disease and follow those potentially-infected pregnant women.
MARTIN: Have any pregnant women been affected so far to your knowledge? Are any of the 19 confirmed cases pregnant women?
RIVERA-GARCIA: Right. Of the 19 confirmed cases, approximately 58 percent are women. However, not all of them are of childbearing age. And none of them, at this time, are pregnant.
MARTIN: I'm sure you're aware that a number of governments are encouraging women of childbearing age not to get pregnant or to delay pregnancy for at least a couple of months. And in the case of El Salvador, they're saying until 2018. Do you mind if I ask you what is your take on that?
RIVERA-GARCIA: Right. Well, I guess it all depends - what are the resources available? In Puerto Rico, we're not ordering or requesting or making a strong recommendation to avoid pregnancy. However, if there are women who do have other risk factors for having a child with microcephaly, then - you should then seriously consider this.
MARTIN: That's Dr. Brenda Rivera-Garcia. She is the territorial epidemiologist with the Department of Health in Puerto Rico, and we reached her there. Dr. Rivera-Garcia, thank you so much for speaking with us.
RIVERA-GARCIA: Oh, no problem, my pleasure.
MARTIN: I hope we can stay in touch on this.
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