The Zika virus is worse than we thought

Zika virus is carried by mosquitoes and can also be passed on through sexual contact.
Zika virus is carried by mosquitoes and can also be passed on through sexual contact. MIAMI HERALD

With summertime mosquito season approaching, the Zika virus is beginning to get mighty scary.

In recent years, we’ve had to deal with other insidious threats, including another mosquito-borne disease, the West Nile virus. But Zika is truly sinister. It’s most vulnerable targets are pregnant women and the fetuses they carry, which the virus attacks.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Brazilian doctors’ initial suspicions — that had become widely accepted — that the Zika virus causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly, usually accompanied by brain defects.

Miami-Dade and the rest of the state are particularly vulnerable to Zika because a large part of the population frequently travels to and from affected countries in Latin America — and mosquitoes still fight for dominance in our tropical climate. Currently, Florida leads the nation in the number of Zika infection cases.

On Thursday, two more cases of the disease were confirmed in Florida, both in Miami-Dade. The state now has 87 cases; 35 are in Miami-Dade; Broward has 13. Nationwide, the number is more than 700.

Let’s make it clear that there have been no locally acquired cases of Zika in Florida — travelers have carried the disease back. The Florida Department of Health has been monitoring the disease, but it now needs to be more aggressive and vigilant in protecting Floridians. The CDC’s dire finding is a game-changer.

At the federal level, President Obama is redirecting $510 million in unspent funds — dedicated to battling Ebola — to fight this year’s scourge. That’s a smart pivot. It’s too bad that Congress is dragging its feet in approving a $2 billion funding request — an ask endorsed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The money would go toward mosquito eradication and vaccine development.

And Florida Gov. Rick Scott is paying attention.

In February, he directed the state surgeon general to activate a Zika Virus Information Hotline for residents and visitors, as well as anyone planning on traveling to Florida in the near future. The hotline, managed by the Department of Health, has assisted 1,394 callers since it launched.

Gov. Scott also had the surgeon general issue a Declaration of Public Health Emergency for residents in the 15 counties — so far — with Zika cases. If needed, Florida currently has the capacity to test 6,754 people for active Zika virus and 1,551 for Zika antibodies.

DOH is working with the CDC, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and local county mosquito-control boards to ensure that the proper precautions are being taken to keep mosquitoes in check.

A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that Miami-Dade County, with a population of 2.8 million, “spends just $1.8 million on mosquito control, enough for a staff of 17, of whom 12 are inspectors. In contrast, Lee County, home to Fort Myers and 660,000 people, spends $16 million a year and has a staff of 88.”

But County Mayor Carlos Gimenez vigorously defended the county’s efforts. He has said the county’s mosquito-control section is prepared to respond “aggressively” with truck or aerial spraying should mosquito counts increase significantly.

Let’s hope these efforts pay off.