Eight New Jersey residents have tested positive for the Zika virus so far, all of them contracting the disease in connection with overseas travel.

Acting Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett told the Assembly Budget Committee at a hearing Monday that Zika is a “pressing health concern” but that the risk applies currently to travelers who visit any of the more than 40 countries where the virus is transmitted.

There have been no Zika infections spread by mosquitoes in New Jersey, or in any U.S. states. There have been 358 cases detected so far in the United States, plus 475 in U.S. territories, nearly all of the latter number acquired locally in Puerto Rico.

“It is something from a traveler’s perspective that we are concerned about,” Bennett said.

“There is a special concern for women who are pregnant or for couples who are thinking about becoming pregnant,” Bennett said.

The biggest concern is the potential impact on pregnant women because of the possibility of microcephaly, a birth defect in which the brain doesn’t develop properly, Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the body’s nerves, or blindness.

Zika virus is spread primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, which can be found in New Jersey though isn’t common here. An infected man can also spread the virus during sex, so men who have traveled to Zika-infected areas are urged to use condoms or abstain from sex for six months.

Not everyone who is infected feels sick, Bennett said.

“Most people don’t suffer any symptoms. As a matter of fact, 80 percent of all those that are infected with Zika, they’re not even aware they have it,” Bennett said.

“The one-fifth that have it have what are typically flu-like or cold-like symptoms – so aches, pains of bones and joints, a slightly elevated temperature,” Bennett said.

In response to the threat, the state Health Department:

  • Sent a team of state and county health officials to a Zika summit held earlier this month in Atlanta by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Launched a public education campaign last month, #ZapZika, to share information through various healthcare avenues, including for doctors and health departments. The Twitter account (@NJDeptofHealth) has grown its audience by 25 percent in the last six months and has 2,623 followers.
  • Began public services announcements on the radio and NJ Transit buses, in English and Spanish, encouraging pregnant women not to travel to Zika-affected countries and travelers to wear long sleeves and pants and use insect repellants.
  • Established a round-the-clock Zika call center, in conjunction with the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System: 1-800-962-1253.
  • Is developing the capability to test residents for Zika in its own laboratory.
  • Is coordinating with the Department of Environmental Protection on mosquito prevention and surveillance.

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