The challenges from mosquito-borne diseases seem never-ending. Now another mosquito-borne virus has already entered Florida and is poised for transmission by Florida’s mosquitoes. Many experts, including the CDC, have warned those in the south, particularly Florida, that there is great risk for terrible consequences from Zika virus.
Zika virus is another mosquito-borne virus transmitted by the same mosquitoes that transmit dengue and chikungunya viruses, which have caused massive outbreaks of those diseases throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. There have been epidemics of both diseases in Florida. Currently Zika virus is the cause of large outbreaks in Brazil and elsewhere in South and Central American where millions have been infected similar to what occurred with dengue and chikungunya.
Zika is chilling beyond what we have seen for dengue and chikungunya. In Brazil pregnant woman who become infected with Zika virus have given birth to babies with microcephaly. These babies are born with abnormally small brains, many die prematurely before or shortly after birth, the babies who survive are severely retarded.
The pictures in Brazil of these babies are frightening and heartrending. This year Brazil has had over 4,000 babies with microcephaly, 40 times more than usual. The mothers of these babies that have been tested were previously infected with Zika virus during the pregnancy and the babies were born infected as well. Brazilian authorities have advised that in areas with Zika transmission woman should postpone pregnancy. Pregnant woman are advised to postpone trips to any regions with ongoing Zika transmission.
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The U. S. CDC is also advising that these areas should be avoided by pregnant woman. What will be said should Zika appear in Florida? What should women of childbearing age do?
What should we be doing here to protect against Zika’s devastating effects? No vaccine is available and a vaccine is unlikely to be available for several years. Like dengue and chikungunya, reducing the populations of the transmitting mosquitoes is so far the best defense. However the mosquito primarily responsible for transmission, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, prefers to breed in human water storage containers and prefers to feed on humans. The perfect domestic mosquito that is very difficult to control.
Mosquito control can spray to kill the adult mosquitoes, destroy the immatures by applying pesticides to aquatic places where they reside, and also try to physically destroy the aquatic habitats where they develop into adult mosquitoes. However, these strategies have only limited impact on controlling these mosquitoes in Florida. The most effective mosquito control agency in the world cannot on its own destroy every water container, every pail, flower pot, water holding plant, clogged rain gutter, etc. Mosquito control must have the public participation to destroy mosquito producing containers on businesses and homeowner properties.
Mosquito control and public health professionals in Florida have implored the public and local government officials to institute laws that will prohibit property owners from refusing to destroy water storage containers on their property that can produce Aedes aegypti. No one has a right to produce Aedes aegypti that endangers the health and well-being of the families of their neighbors. The Florida Coordinating Council on Mosquito Control requested action through Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Florida’s Department of Health for laws and by requesting local government for ordinances that prohibit such dangerous practices. Can Florida’s citizens tolerate inaction in their county that allows Aedes aegypti to thrive when simple cleanups of properties by their owners will go a long way to reduce the risk of local Aedes aegypti populations and the risk of disease in neighborhoods? Do residents have to tolerate neighbors who will not destroy the container habitats on their own properties? We already know places where there is great risk due to Aedes aegypti the need for action by responsible government officials.
Microcephalic babies in the U.S. due to Zika is unimaginable. We know what is needed by the public to make Florida mosquito control more effective in reducing Aedes aegypti populations, and yet little has been done in many areas of Florida. Those responsible for providing the local ordinances and enforcement that are essential to meet this public health threat must be warned.
Citizens throughout Florida need to call their local government representatives and demand ordinances and enforcement to stop property owners from producing Aedes aegypti. We are all responsible in a way if we fail to do anything to prevent as many cases as possible.
Walter J. Tabachnick is the former director of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory and a professor in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida at Vero Beach.