Many Travelers Remain Uninformed as CDC Confirms Zika Causes Birth Defects

Americans are alarmingly unaware about the Zika virus and how to prevent it, a new poll finds

As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirm that the Zika virus causes severe birth defects, a new poll has found that an alarming number of Americans have little or no knowledge of Zika and an overwhelming majority have no plans to change their travel plans because of it.

On April 13, Dr. Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), announced, "it is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly." While the link has been widely accepted for months, scientists had been careful to qualify their warnings, saying that the evidence strongly suggested a link but that it was not proven yet.

Frieden's comments came as the CDC published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine confirming a link between the mosquito-borne virus and microcephaly (an abnormally small head) and other severe brain defects of children in the womb. 

The CDC doctors who authored that article said one reason it was vital to confirm the link between Zika and severe fetal brain defects is that it "would allow for more direct communication, which might lead to improved understanding of and adherence to public health recommendations" by the American public. There is no vaccine for Zika or medicine to treat it. 

The CDC researchers cited a poll conducted in March and published this month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, which found that fully 40 percent of Americans have "heard little or nothing at all about the Zika virus."

Of particular concern is that younger Americans -- those most likely to become pregnant or have a partner or spouse become pregnant -- had the lowest awareness, with 50 percent of Americans age 30-39 and 57 percent of those age 18-29 saying they have heard little or nothing about Zika. In addition, only 57 percent of the U.S. general public is aware that Zika can be transmitted sexually, the poll found.

When it comes to travel, fully 78 percent of those surveyed said they had little or no worry "that they or a family member will need to change travel plans to avoid the [Zika] virus." Only 11 percent reported that they had changed travel plans. 

"We've now confirmed what mounting evidence has suggested, affirming our early guidance to pregnant women and their partners to take steps to avoid Zika infection and to health care professionals who are talking to patients every day," Dr. Friedan added. "We are working to do everything possible to protect the American public." 

As of April 6, 2016, there have been 346 U.S. cases of the Zika virus confirmed by the CDC, all contracted during travel outside the continental United States. Of those, 32 were pregnant women and seven cases were transmitted sexually. In its announcement on April 13, the CDC also reiterated that all pregnant women who contract Zika do not give birth to children with microcephaly or other brain defects, although the risk they will do so is substantially increased.