Zika virus: U.S. hospitals brace for pandemic as feds roll out safety measures

Fears over the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus continue as the Food and Drug Administration issues revised guidelines for blood donations and the World Health Organization unveils a $56 million international plan to combat the illness.

Healthcare institutions across the U.S. are readying themselves for the arrival of the Zika virus--four more new cases have been diagnosed in Illinois, according to ABC7--but experts caution much is still unknown about the illness. Indeed, numerous aspects of the virus, its symptoms and the treatment process are still emerging, according to a whitepaper from the Brookings Institution.

On the global front, the World Health Organization has announced a $56 million plan aimed at impeding the spread of the virus, with particular emphasis on mobilizing and coordination between partners. Of the funds, $25 million would go to WHO operations while $31 million would fund key partners.

This week the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines aimed at slowing Zika's spread into the nation's blood supply. Recommendations included screening all blood donors in non-affected locations who have visited Zika-affected regions. Individuals who have had sexual contact with partners who have been to infected regions are also discouraged from donating blood without screening.

U.S. hospitals are putting a number of measures in place ahead of the arrival or warm weather, which could bring the spread of the virus to more states. Healthcare institutions are also reevaluating diagnostic and screening processes as well as isolation and quarantine policies.

Zika only manifests symptoms in one in five of the people in infects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While this may seem like good news at first, it makes tracking the virus all the more difficult, The Guardian reported. The U.S. is nowhere near ready to begin testing on a mass scale and some scientists argue that it isn't even responsible for the birth defects that have emerged in Brazil. 

"It's not clear that what's going on in Brazil is linked to the Zika virus," Israeli virologist Leslie Lobel, M.D., Ph.D., told The Guardian. "There's no definitive proof that Zika is causing microcephaly. I believe the hysteria is way ahead of the research or the facts about the pathology surrounding this virus."

The CDC reported last week, however, that two microcephalic babies born in Brazil who died from their birth defects tested positive for Zika infection. Although the agency said further testing is necessary to determine an actual link between Zika and microcephaly, it has issued travel advisories urging women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant and their partners to avoid traveling to affected areas. 

While much is still not understood about the link between Zika and birth defects, U.S. healthcare providers are adopting a "better safe than sorry" approach, FierceHealthcare previously reported. "We're primarily focused on the potential screening and counseling of pregnant women who may have been in an area where Zika transmission is occurring," said Steven Gordon, M.D., chairman of the Cleveland Clinic's infectious disease department, last week.

To learn more:
- here's The Guardian article
- read the WHO's bulletin
- read the FDA blood donation guidelines 
- here's the ABC7 article
- read the CDC travel advisories
- check out the Brookings Institute whitepaper