Health Care

Zika virus may not be in South Florida yet, but it has the potential to be

Federal health officials urging doctors in U.S. to test newborns showing signs of the deadly Zika virus. In this Jan. 18, 2016, file photo, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquires a blood meal on the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Federal health officials urging doctors in U.S. to test newborns showing signs of the deadly Zika virus. In this Jan. 18, 2016, file photo, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquires a blood meal on the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. AP

Although no one has yet contracted the mosquito-borne Zika virus in South Florida, history shows a familiar pattern.

The type of mosquito capable of carrying and spreading the disease, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is not uncommon in South Florida. It’s the same mosquito that has transmitted the tropical diseases of yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya, pronounced chik-en-gun-ye and characterized by high fever.

So the Florida Department of Health’s mosquito monitoring program is even more important now that the virus is rapidly spreading across Latin American and Caribbean countries, said Dr. Paola Lichtenberger, director of the University of Miami’s tropical medicine program.

“We are special in South Florida because we have the mosquito that could carry it,” she said.

The positive side: Zika, which may be linked to thousands of babies born with small, undeveloped brains in Brazil, is not here yet. And, according to the Florida Department of Health, the disease cannot be spread from person to person through routine contact. Rather, it’s typically contracted by a bite from an infected mosquito.

Zika, which was first discovered in Uganda in 1947, has been on the radar since the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil last May. The virus has since spread to a host of Latin American and Caribbean countries including: Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Suriname and Venezuela.

The main concern: The virus might cause birth defects including microcephaly, a rare condition in which children are born with damaged, smaller-than-normal brains. Nearly 4,000 infants in Brazil might be affected.

Pregnant women, who can transmit the virus during pregnancy or at the time of birth, are most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last week, the CDC issued an alert advising pregnant women or women who are considering getting pregnant to postpone travel to the affected countries.

Lichtenberger said anyone — especially pregnant women — who has traveled to countries where the virus is endemic should immediately see a doctor if they experience any symptoms, which include fever and a rash.

The fear locally is that a mosquito can bite an infected person and then spread the disease to others in South Florida, Lichtenberger said.

According to Miami-Dade County, the Mosquito Control Unit is not doing anything additional because of the Zika virus, but the department actively monitors the mosquito population and responds to complaints about mosquito activity.

“Through outreach and public education efforts, we encourage residents to prevent mosquito breeding by eliminating standing water in and around their homes,” Francisco Calderon, the spokesman for Miami-Dade Public Works, said Tuesday in an email.

Miami Herald writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

Zika virus tips

▪ Anyone who is living in or travels to an area where the disease is endemic is susceptible.

▪ Symptoms — fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis (red eye) — typically begin two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

▪ Pregnant woman should consider postponing travel to infected areas.

▪ There is no vaccine or medicine to treat the virus.

▪ Anyone, including pregnant women, traveling to endemic countries should wear EPA-registered insect repellant. They should also wear clothing, treated with repellant, to cover arms and legs.

▪ If you are infected with Zika, get a lot of rest, drink fluids and take medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol, Advil). Avoid aspirin.

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