As Zika virus, now a pandemic, spreads across Latin America and into South Florida, experts warn that summertime travel to the Olympic games in Brazil could create conditions for more cases of the mosquito-borne illness.
“The summertime will be a perfect storm,” said Dr. John Beier, director of the division of environmental and public health in the department of public health sciences at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “You’ve got mosquitoes, the virus, human travel. We’re expecting a lot of those travelers to return to South Florida.”
The Miller School of Medicine hosted a forum Wednesday afternoon to address concerns and recent developments on the Zika virus that has, to date, been detected in 72 people in Florida, with almost 50 percent of cases concentrated in Miami-Dade County alone.
“We’re very concerned about the Zika virus,” Beier said. “As you know, it causes microcephaly [a birth defect] but it is also the first sexually transmitted vector-borne disease.”
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The term “vector-borne diseases” refers to illnesses caused by infectious microbes transmitted to humans via blood-sucking insects, like the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry the Zika virus.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito will thrive in the heat that envelops South Florida June through September, Beier said.
“Summertime is our highest mosquito time. There will be plenty of mosquitoes out, temperatures are rising, people are traveling to our city,” he explained. “We see all of these things potentially coming together.”
The bigger problem, he added, is the Aedes aegypti mosquito’s unprecedented ability to adapt to novel environments.
“They’re even spreading way up north … because they’re adapting to the cold. They can go underground and find suitable habitats even in the winter,” he said.
To control the insect, the Florida Department of Health suggests using mosquito repellent, wearing long sleeves and pants, and making sure backyards and outdoor areas are free of standing water, where mosquitoes can breed.
South Florida’s mosquito control efforts, according to Dr. Anna Marie Likos, of the Florida Department of Health, are effectively and swiftly containing the spread of Zika.
“Mosquito control is aware of this person [in Florida] who may be infected with a mosquito-borne disease before lab testing is back,” she explained. “The response is taking place long before the results come back.”
New methods of containing mosquito populations, such as introducing genetically modified mosquitoes, are being explored, according to Beier.
“We know other types of mosquito control exist, but we’re waiting for evidence that those control methods work. … How many Zika cases are prevented? We don’t know. We want to see more than just killing mosquitoes.”