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Zika on insurers' radar but not yet in cost models

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U.S. health insurers are closely monitoring the Zika virus and educating members, but it's too soon to project what the virus may cost payers.

The World Health Organization on Monday declared the threat of the Zika virus an international public health emergency, a move it has made only three times before, and called on the global community to fight the disease and expedite the development of a vaccine.

Infection with the mosquito-borne virus, first identified in Uganda in 1947, produces symptoms of mild fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis, according to Geneva-based WHO.

The main concern with the Zika virus is its association with microcephaly in babies whose mothers became infected while pregnant, though the link has yet to be scientifically proven. Babies born with microcephaly have abnormally small heads, which can lead to developmental issues.

The virus has been reported in at least 28 countries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there is no vaccine.

While health officials and doctors are taking the lead to fight the epidemic, health insurers are stepping up.

“We are in contact with the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. federal agencies, state and local health departments, health care providers and others so that we can provide timely, relevant and accurate information to our members and customers. Additionally, we have distributed health information from the CDC to our disease management and case management teams to help support our members,” an Aetna Inc. spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman said it is “premature” to predict health care costs associated with the Zika virus.

Indianapolis-based health insurer Anthem Inc. posted a message on Twitter cautioning travelers headed to the Caribbean to heed the CDC's warnings about Zika virus, and Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. has published updates related to the virus on its website.

Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and UnitedHealth did not respond to requests for comment on how they are responding to the Zika virus and whether they are projecting health care costs associated with the virus.

Several cases of Zika virus have been reported in the U.S. from travelers returning from Latin America, though the first case of infection in an individual who had not recently traveled was confirmed by the CDC Tuesday. Health officials said Tuesday that the virus was transmitted sexually in that case.