Zika virus blood tests coming to New York City, officials say

New York City health officials are gearing up to make Zika blood tests available to pregnant women who have traveled to countries where the mosquito-borne disease is flourishing.

Five cases of the disease have been confirmed in the city, health officials said. However, officials would not name the countries visited by the people who contracted the virus.

“Virtually there is no risk to contract the virus here in New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said a news briefing Thursday. “But we need to be prepared.”

De Blasio met Thursday with a dozen of the medical doctors who worked on the city’s response to the Ebola virus last year.

The doctors met behind closed doors and discussed how to provide blood tests to individuals who show symptoms of the disease — fever, rashes, joint pain and reddened eyes.

Blood tests are expected to be available next week, said Dr. Herminia Palacio, deputy mayor of Health and Human Services.

“New Yorkers need to take precautions. They should protect themselves from mosquito bites and postpone their travels,” said Mary Travis Bassett, the city’s health commissioner. “We have strong ties to Latin America and the Caribbean with a great deal of people traveling there.”

The Zika virus has caused birth defects and miscarriages in Latin America and the Caribbean, officials said. In the United States, about 52 people have been infected by the virus by visiting regions where the infection is endemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In one case in Dallas a person was infected through sexual transmission, the CDC said.

There is no vaccine for the virus and the CDC recommends that pregnant women not travel to infected countries. The agency also suggests abstaining from sex or using condom with their partners who have traveled to those countries. The virus is believed to survive in the body for at least two weeks.

“There is still a lot that we have to learn,” Bassett said. The mosquito that carries the Zika virus, aedes aegypti, has “a cousin here in New York called the Asian Tiger,” she said.

To prepare for mosquito season in April, city health officials will begin a public awareness campaign to tell people how to eradicate breeding areas, including getting rid of standing water in containers. Some of the recommendations and actions will be similar to the city’s approach to combating the West Nile virus, which may include spraying mosquito breeding areas.

“We want to be prepared for any curve ball that may come our way,” Palacio said.