CNMI Healthcare Corp. Steps Up Zika Virus Response

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Health officials want to ensure disease doesn’t reach commonwealth

By Frauleine S. Villanueva-Dizon

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 2, 2016) – The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. has strengthened its response in making sure that the Zika virus—the current virus that’s infecting a lot of countries today including one U.S. territory—will not infect the CNMI.

Health officials yesterday told Saipan Tribune that they strengthened their response and surveillance on the virus that can be transmitted through mosquito bites.

"Right now we don’t have any [cases] but we strengthened our surveillance," CHCC public health and hospital preparedness director Warren Villagomez said.

"We just got a notice today that there are more efforts from healthcare providers and systems seeing that the Zika virus, the Dengue, the Chikungunya, you have all these. Obviously there is always a threat. We need to strengthen our response," CHCC chief executive officer Esther Muna said.

Zika virus is a single-stranded RNA virus and is transmitted to humans primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mosquito vectors typically breed in domestic water-holding containers; are aggressive daytime biters and feed both indoors and outdoors near dwellings.

CDC said the symptoms of Zika virus are similar dengue but is more severe. These includes fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache.

The incubation period for Zika virus disease is not known, but is likely to be a few days to a week. Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for a few days but it can be found longer in some people.

"The only way to stop it is to stop the spreading of mosquitoes," Muna said.

She added that the virus is not a new infection and has actually been in existence but there is no vaccine yet for the virus.

"It’s not an epidemic yet. You obviously have a case here and there and we just need to be able to make sure that it doesn’t become one," Muna said.

"We already have one U.S. territory, Puerto Rico, that was infected," she added, citing that it is due to the closeness of the territory to the origin of the virus.

Villagomez said they were given advice to use some funding from Ebola to prepare for Zika.

"We were advised to utilize some supplemental funding that we got from Ebola to prepare for Zika in all different aspects from surveillance, to risk communication, possible transportation of off-island samples in the event that we have a suspected case," Villagomez said

They are in constant contact with Hawaii and the region’s epidemiology center in Guam.

"We’re doing everything we can right now," Villagomez said, "We’re reaching out and making sure that our critical sentinel points are advised about this disease and if anything kind of triggers we will be notified."

Aside from monitoring people who are coming in on island, CHCC and the Division of Public Health are addressing the need for prevention through eliminating possible areas where mosquitoes might breed.

"The teams are going out for village inspections. We’re sending out the advisory for the rainy season and mosquitoes, and what to do," DPH director Margaret Aldan said.

CHCC will also be releasing soon public notices regarding the virus and how the general community can help with the prevention.

"CDC updates their guidance. We want to make sure that we have an updated guidance and we will issue out a statement, a notice, basically just warning and in the meantime we’re monitoring the areas where there’s absolutely a chance, a risk of mosquitoes," Muna said.

One of the main concerns in being infected by the virus is its severe impact on pregnant women.

Women in Brazil who have contracted the virus during pregnancy were linked to having children who have microcephaly or smaller head circumference which usually results from abnormal brain development.

Because of this, Muna advises pregnant women to continue monitoring their babies.

"Do not skip prenatal checkups because you never know what’s happening. Maybe you never felt that bite. But the bottom line is you really need to get prenatal checkups and monitor the progress of your baby," Muna said.

Health officials also warned about using aspirin as it may cause inflammation if you have the virus.

Should a possible Zika virus infection be reported in the CNMI, health officials said it has to be confirmed first before the treatment process begins.

"You need to send the specimen. The sample will be collected through a serum and it gets sent to a U.S.-referenced laboratory. That’s going to be the determination of treatment course," Villagomez said.

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