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SALT LAKE CITY — An elderly Salt Lake County resident who died in late June is the first confirmed Zika-related death in the continental U.S., health officials announced Friday.
The individual traveled to a Zika-infected area earlier this year and was awaiting Zika testing results when he or she died, according to Salt Lake County Health Department Director Gary Edwards.
He said officials found the cause of death to be "of suspicion" and later received test results confirming that the individual had Zika.
Due to privacy laws, public health officials said they would not release additional details about the individual or his or her travel history.
It may be impossible to determine exactly how or if the Zika virus contributed to the individual's death, said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, the health department's medical director, who added that the individual had "an underlying health condition."
Vitek clarified in a news conference Friday that officials believe Zika contributed to the death but do not know if it was the sole cause.
Experts assured Utahns that the chance of local transmission in the state remains low. The species of mosquito that carries Zika has been found in Utah just once, when mosquito abatement workers caught six specimens in Washington County three years ago.
Utah’s cold winters and high elevation usually prevent Zika-carrying mosquitoes from surviving in Utah, according to Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District manager Ary Faraji.
Six people in Salt Lake County have tested positive for the Zika virus, according to Salt Lake County epidemiology director Ilene Risk, including the deceased individual. All had recently traveled to Zika-affected areas.
No locally acquired Zika cases have been reported yet in the 50 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Still, workers will be increasing the number of traps they put out in Salt Lake County, Faraji said, "just to make sure."
The mosquito-borne illness was declared a public health crisis after alarming reports from Brazil surfaced last year of babies being born with severe birth defects.
Since then, “the more we’ve learned, the bigger the problem seems,” said University of Utah pediatric infectious diseases chief Dr. Andrew Pavia.
Once considered a relatively mild illness, the Zika virus is now thought to cause a range of birth defects in children born to infected mothers, and it has been linked to a rare form of temporary paralysis called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
And although spread mostly through mosquitoes, sexual transmission is now thought to play a bigger role in Zika's spread than once thought, according to Pavia.
However, Zika-related deaths remain rare, he said.
A 70-year-old Puerto Rican man who died in February was the first U.S. death tied to the disease.
In that case, Pavia said, the man died as the result of an autoimmune reaction to an earlier Zika infection in which his antibodies started attacking his platelets.
Experts also believe that people who have weaker immune systems may be more susceptible to complications, although Pavia called the theory "speculative" at this point.
With containment proving difficult and Congress deadlocked over Zika funding, Pavia said the virus is likely to continue spreading throughout the Western hemisphere.
“It is really hard to mount an all-hands-on-deck response to a new infection when you have to steal money from one program and count pennies and recycle syringes,” Pavia said. “That's a slight exaggeration, but they’re really running out of spare change that they can find to do the work they need. We need funds to deal with this.”
The Utah Department of Health is awaiting about $826,000 in funding from the CDC expected to arrive next month.
But Democrats and Republicans in Congress are still fighting over President Barack Obama’s February request for $1.9 million in emergency Zika funding.
Last month, Democrats blocked a federal spending bill that would have provided $1.1 billion to fight Zika, arguing that Republicans had inserted "poison pills" into the legislation. Those included provisions that would have restricted Planned Parenthood and other clinics from providing contraceptive services related to Zika and threatened funding for the Affordable Care Act.
On Friday, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, accused Senate Democrats of “playing politics with our health" in a statement about the Utahn's death.
The House passed a bill he sponsored that would have redirected leftover funds from the Ebola crisis to Zika. Democrats maintained that money was still needed to fight Ebola.
Without any indication that a vaccine or cure is on the way, Vitek reminded residents that prevention “is absolutely huge.”
People who are traveling to Zika-infected areas are advised to take precautions during the trip and after. For the most updated information about areas affected by Zika, visit CDC.gov/zika.
Because Zika can be sexually transmitted, women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should not have unprotected sex with a man who has recently traveled to an area of the world where Zika virus is circulating for six months, health officials said.
The Salt Lake County Travel Clinic is available to educate travelers about preventing Zika and other diseases common in their destination. The travel clinic can provide necessary immunizations and prescriptions for the prevention of other travel-related diseases. Appointments can be made by calling 385-468-4111.
People who have traveled recently and who are concerned about any illness they may be experiencing should contact their health care provider.
Contributing: Katie McKellar