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Mysterious Zika Case in Utah Baffles Experts

We do believe this is a unique situation.

That statement from Dr. Angela Dunn, deputy state epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, was meant to comfort Utah residents concerned about what appears to be the first non-mosquito and non-sexual transmission of the Zika virus from one person to another. With the Rio Olympics coming up, does this mean athletes should avoid high-fiving anyone?

According to a press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an elderly Utah resident had recently traveled to an undisclosed Zika area. After returning to Utah, he died suddenly in late June and an autopsy revealed that, in addition to having other serious health conditions, he had an unusually high level of the Zika virus in his bloodstream. Since this was the first Zika death in the continental U.S., state and national health officials converged on Utah. That’s when the mysterious second infection was found.

Illustration of Zika virus in the bloodstream

Illustration of Zika virus in the bloodstream

Details are scarce due to efforts to protect the privacy of the victims’ families but this much is known. A family caretaker of the elderly Zika fatality who did not visit the Zika area with him and did not have sexual relations with him also contracted the disease. Dr. Erin Staples, a CDC Medical Epidemiologist in Utah, describes the medical community’s reaction:

The new case in Utah is a surprise, showing that we still have more to learn about Zika. Fortunately, the patient recovered quickly, and from what we have seen with more than 1,300 travel-associated cases of Zika in the continental United States and Hawaii, non-sexual spread from one person to another does not appear to be common.

Uncommon but not impossible and, so far, unexplained – despite the fact that the CDC Emergency Response Team on the ground in Utah is filled with experts in infection control, virology, mosquito control and disease investigation. Local mosquitoes are being caught and tested even though Utah is not known to have the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

If it wasn't transmitted by mosquitoes or sex, how did the caretaker get infected?

If it wasn’t transmitted by mosquitoes or sex, how did the caretaker get infected?

Dr. Satish Pillai, the CDC’s incidence manager in Utah, is baffled.

We don’t have evidence that Zika can be passed from one person to another by sneezing, coughing, by hugging or kissing.

And yet, there’s a mysterious Zika victim in Utah. Could it have been a case of poor hygiene practices by the caretaker? An accidental transfer via saliva, urine or blood? And what caused the elderly man to have such a high level of Zika virus – over 100,000 times that normally seen – in his bloodstream?

While Utah and rest of the world waits for answers, the Zika mystery continues.