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Uncovering a Hidden Zika Outbreak in Cuba

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Zika Virus in Cuba
Credit: Sharon Isern,

When Brazilian health officials discovered four years ago that the mosquito-borne Zika virus could cause severe birth defects and other serious health problems, it prompted a major effort across the Americas to curb the infection by controlling mosquitoes and issuing travel advisories. By mid-2017, the hard work seemed to have paid off, and reports of new Zika infections had nearly stopped.

But it turns out Zika may be tougher to control than once thought. New research shows that a large, previously hidden outbreak of Zika virus disease occurred in Cuba, just when it looked like the worst of the epidemic was over. The finding suggests that the Zika virus can linger over long periods, and that mosquito control efforts alone may slow, but not necessarily stop, the march of this potentially devastating infectious disease.

When combating global epidemics, it’s critical to track the spread of dangerous viruses from one place to the next. But some viruses can be tougher to monitor than others, and that certainly has been the case with Zika in the Americas. Though the virus can harm unborn children, many people infected with Zika never feel lousy enough to go to the doctor. Those who do often have symptoms that overlap with other prevalent tropical diseases, such as dengue and chikungunya fever, making it hard to recognize Zika.

That’s why in Brazil, where Zika arrived in the Americas by early 2014, this unexpected viral intruder went undetected for well over a year. By then, it had spread unnoticed to Honduras, circulating rapidly to other Central American nations and Mexico—likely by late 2014 and into 2015.

In the United States, even with close monitoring, a small local outbreak of Zika virus in Florida also went undetected for about three months in 2016 [1]. Then, in 2017, Florida officials began noticing something strange: new cases of Zika infection in people who had traveled to Cuba.

This came as a real surprise because Cuba, unlike most other Caribbean islands, was thought to have avoided an outbreak. What’s more, by then the Zika epidemic in the Americas had slowed to a trickle, prompting the World Health Organization to delist it as a global public health emergency of international concern.

Given the Cuban observation, some wondered whether the Zika epidemic in the Americas was really over. Among them was an NIH-supported research team, including Nathan Grubaugh, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, CT; Sharon Isern and Scott Michael, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers; and Kristian Andersen, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, who worked closely with the Florida Department of Health, including Andrea Morrison.

As published in Cell, the team was able to document a previously unreported outbreak in Cuba after the epidemic had seemingly ended [2]. Interestingly, another research group in Spain also recently made a similar observation about Zika in Cuba [3].

In the Cell paper, the researchers show that between June 2017 and October 2018, all but two of 155 cases—a whopping 98 percent of travel-associated Zika infections—traced back to Cuba. Further analysis suggests that the outbreak in Cuba was likely of similar magnitude to outbreaks that occurred in other Caribbean nations.

Their estimates suggest there were likely many thousands of Zika cases in Cuba, and more than 5,000 likely should have been diagnosed and reported in 2017. The only difference was the timing. The Cuban outbreak of Zika virus occurred about a year after infections subsided elsewhere in the Caribbean.

To fill in more of the blanks, the researchers relied on Zika virus genomes from nine infected Florida travelers who returned from Cuba in 2017 and 2018. The sequencing data support multiple introductions of Zika virus to Cuba from other Caribbean islands in the summer of 2016.

The outbreak peaked about a year after the virus made its way to Cuba, similar to what happened in other places. But the Cuban outbreak was likely delayed by a year thanks to an effective mosquito control campaign by local authorities, following detection of the Brazilian outbreak. While information is lacking, including whether Zika infections had caused birth defects, it’s likely those efforts were relaxed once the emergency appeared to be over elsewhere in the Caribbean, and the virus took hold.

The findings serve as yet another reminder that the Zika virus—first identified in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947 and for many years considered a mostly inconsequential virus [4]—has by no means been eliminated. Indeed, such unrecognized and delayed outbreaks of Zika raise the risk of travelers innocently spreading the virus to other parts of the world.

The encouraging news is that, with travel surveillance data and genomic tools —enabled by open science—it is now possible to detect such outbreaks. By combining resources and data, it will be possible to develop even more effective and responsive surveillance frameworks to pick up on emerging health threats in the future.

In the meantime, work continues to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus, with more than a dozen clinical trials underway that pursue a variety of vaccination strategies. With the Zika pandemic resolved in the Americas, these studies can be harder to conduct, since proof of efficacy is not possible without active infections. But, as this paper shows, we must remain ready for future outbreaks of this unique and formidable virus.


[1] Genomic epidemiology reveals multiple introductions of Zika virus into the United States. Grubaugh et al. Nature. 2017 Jun 15;546(7658):401-405.

[2] Travel surveillance and genomics uncover a hidden Zika outbreak during the waning epidemic. Grubaugh ND, Saraf S, Gangavarapu K, Watts A, Tan AL, Oidtman RJ, Magnani DM, Watkins DI, Palacios G, Hamer DH; GeoSentinel Surveillance Network, Gardner LM, Perkins TA, Baele G, Khan K, Morrison A, Isern S, Michael SF, Andersen .KG, et. al. Cell. 2019 Aug 22;178(5):1057-1071.e11.

[3] Mirroring the Zika epidemics in Cuba: The view from a European imported diseases clinic. Almuedo-Riera A, Rodriguez-Valero N, Camprubí D, Losada Galván I, Zamora-Martinez C, Pousibet-Puerto J, Subirà C, Martinez MJ, Pinazo MJ, Muñoz J. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2019 Jul – Aug;30:125-127.

[4] Pandemic Zika: A Formidable Challenge to Medicine and Public Health. Morens DM, Fauci AS. J Infect Dis. 2017 Dec 16;216(suppl_10):S857-S859.


Video: Uncovering Hidden Zika Outbreaks (Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers)

Zika Virus (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Zika Virus Vaccines (NIAID)

Zika Free Florida (Florida Department of Health, Tallahassee)

Grubaugh Lab (Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, CT)

Andersen Lab (The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

Zika Virus: An Emerging Health Threat

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Credit: Kraemer et al. eLife 2015;4:e08347

For decades, the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus was mainly seen in equatorial regions of Africa and Asia, where it caused a mild, flu-like illness and rash in some people. About 10 years ago, the picture began to expand with the appearance of Zika outbreaks in the Pacific islands. Then, last spring, Zika popped up in South America, where it has so far infected more than 1 million Brazilians and been tentatively linked to a steep increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and brain [1]. And Zika’s disturbing march may not stop there.

In a new study in the journal The Lancet, infectious disease modelers calculate that Zika virus has the potential to spread across warmer and wetter parts of the Western Hemisphere as local mosquitoes pick up the virus from infected travelers and then spread the virus to other people [2]. The study suggests that Zika virus could eventually reach regions of the United States in which 60 percent of our population lives. This highlights the need for NIH and its partners in the public and private sectors to intensify research on Zika virus and to look for new ways to treat the disease and prevent its spread.

Climate and Viral Illness: El Niño Event Linked to Dengue Epidemics

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Dengue Incidence Score Video
Caption: Incidence of dengue fever across Southeast Asia, 1993-2010. Note increasing incidence (red) starting about June 1997, which corresponds to a period of higher temperatures driven by a strong El Niño. At the end of the El Niño event, in January 1999, dengue incidence is much lower (green). Credit: Wilbert Van Panhuis, University of Pittsburgh

Just as the severity of the winter flu fluctuates from year to year in the United States, dengue fever can rage through tropical and subtropical regions of the world during their annual rainy seasons, causing potentially life-threatening high fever, severe joint pain, and bleeding. Other years—for still unknown reasons—dengue fizzles out. While many nations monitor the incidence of dengue within their borders, their data aren’t always combined to track outbreaks across wider regions over longer times.

Now, NIH-funded researchers and colleagues, reporting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1], have linked an intense dengue epidemic that struck eight Southeast Asian countries starting in mid-1997 to high temperatures driven by the strongest El Niño event in recent times. El Niño is a complex, irregularly occurring series of climate changes in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. This new insight into climatic factors associated with dengue transmission could enable better prevention measures, which may soon be needed because climatologists are predicting another strong El Niño event next year due to unusually high ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.