As the mosquito-borne Zika virus tears through Latin America and the Caribbean, health officials in the United States say it’s only a matter of time before someone is affected here.
But Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that “outbreaks of Zika in the continental U.S. will likely be limited.”
While the mosquito that carries the virus, Aedes aegypti, is common in South Florida, Schuchat said several factors in the United States work in our favor: U.S. urban areas are less densely populated, air-conditioning is more widespread and mosquito control efforts are generally stronger.
“We are very aggressive when it comes to mosquito control,” said Beth Ranson, of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. The district has been working with Oxitec, a biotech company, on developing a genetically modified male mosquito to mate with female mosquitoes, which would produce offspring that won’t make it to adulthood. The company has said trials conducted in Brazil have reduced the Aedes aegypti population by 90 percent. The Food and Drug Administration is examining the proposal.
It only takes a tablespoon of water to produce 300 mosquitoes.
Beth Ranson, Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
The World Health Organization said Thursday possible links of Zika to neurological syndromes that can cause paralysis changed Zika from “a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.’’
Since 2015, 31 travel-associated Zika cases have been detected in 11 U.S. states, Schuchat said. Earlier this month, the Florida Health Department confirmed three travel-related cases in Florida. Two were in Miami-Dade from people who brought the disease back from Colombia. The third was in Hillsborough County, where a person contracted the virus in Venezuela.
The disease cannot be transmitted by routine human contact. Rather, it is transmitted when an infested mosquito bites a human, and then another mosquito bites the infected person. The main risk is to pregnant women, as the disease has been linked in Brazil to about 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect that causes babies to be born with smaller brains. There has been one case where a wife contracted the disease from her husband during sexual intercourse, Schuchat said.
The CDC has issued a travel alert for more than 20 countries including Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. The virus also has been found in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The reason for the concern: the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus is linked to the same mosquito that brought cases of tropical diseases chikungunya and dengue to the United States, particularly to South Florida.
“I am willing to bet money we will see some locally transmitted cases [of Zika],” said Amy Vittor, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Medicine and Emerging Pathogens.
Additionally, the Aedes aegypti mosquito multiplies exponentially in small levels of standing water.
“It only takes a tablespoon of water to produce 300 mosquitoes,’’ said Ranson of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
Here, then, is more information about Zika and steps you can take to minimize your risk of contracting it.
Only one out of five people who contract the disease will show symptoms, according to the CDC. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eye). That makes it harder to know if someone is infected, Schuchat said.
“Those who do get sick usually have very mild symptoms,” Schuchat said.
The incubation period is usually three to 12 days, meaning if you were exposed to the virus, you would get it during this period.
There is no vaccine or medications to treat the virus.
Pregnant women — or women who are planning to become pregnant — are at the greatest risk. The risk is not so much to themselves, but to their baby, who can be born with the rare birth defect that causes the small brains. The CDC strongly recommends that pregnant women in any trimester, especially the first trimester, not travel to affected areas.
“If you are pregnant we recommend you consider postponing travel to a region with ongoing Zika virus transmission,” said Schuchat.
If you have visited one of the countries with the virus, and develop a fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes within two weeks after traveling to that country, see your doctor immediately, the CDC says. A blood test can determine if you’re carrying the virus.
The CDC said this week that U.S. doctors should test newborns who show signs of the Zika virus, especially in states such as Florida, where mosquitoes are prevalent.
Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding can use insect repellent with one of the following active ingredients: DEET and Picaridin, found in such products as Off!, Cutter and Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus. These are EPA-registered insect repellents. The CDC does not recommend using the following non-registered repellents: Citronella oil, cedar oil, geranium oil, peppermint and peppermint oil, pure oil of lemon eucalyptus and soybean oil.
The CDC does not know whether a future pregnancy would be at risk if a woman is bitten by an infected mosquito now and gets pregnant later.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says a small amount of the Zika virus found in breast milk is “unlikely to be harmful’’ to the baby.
Most insect repellant can be used on children, according to the CDC, with a few caveats.
For one, never apply insect repellent to children younger than 2 months old, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics.
For children 3 and under, do not use products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus, found in many repellents, the CDC says.
In terms of applying repellent on children, here are a few guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
▪ Never spray repellent directly onto a child’s face. Instead, spray a little on your hands and rub it onto a child’s face.
▪ Avoid spraying repellent on cuts, wounds or irritated skin.
▪ Always wash a child’s skin with soap and water after they come inside.
▪ Do not use products that combine DEET with sunscreen, as you run the risk of overexposing your child to the repellent.
▪ Cover cribs, strollers or baby carriers with mosquito netting.
“Parents should always check with their pediatrician to see what works best for their child,” said Dr. Jefry Biehler, chairman of pediatrics at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
If you’re traveling to an area that has the Zika virus, here are some key steps to take, according to the CDC:
▪ Choose a hotel or lodging with air-conditioning and screens on windows and doors;
▪ If you are sleeping outdoors, sleep under a mosquito net, preferably one treated with permethrin, an insecticide that kills mosquitoes. You can also buy permethrin-treated clothing, shoes and camping gear. But, do not spray permethrin onto your skin;
▪ Travelers to affected areas should monitor for symptoms or illness upon return.
Local governments are stepping up mosquito control efforts. And the Florida Department of Health is closely monitoring mosquitoes in South Florida to determine whether the disease has hit the local population.
But, officials say, individuals can help prevent the spread of the disease by taking these steps:
▪ Clear and drain standing water. Mosquitoes breed in standing water.
▪ When outside, wear light-colored long-sleeve shirts and long pants.
▪ Stay in air-conditioning and keep doors and windows without screens closed. This type of mosquito likes to live indoors as well as outdoors.
“The best way to prevent Zika is by not getting bitten,’’ Biehler said. “But if your child gets bitten in South Florida, don’t panic.’’