With hot and humid summer weather—and the accompanied mosquito breeding season—already taking hold of much of the southeastern part of the country, U.S. health officials are launching preemptive strikes against the spread of the Zika virus, which poses a serious threat to pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.
The virus, which has been proven to cause birth defects in babies in Brazil and Latin America, is likely to spread in some areas of the U.S., but experts hope transmission will not be as rampant. Luckily, much of this country does not have a tropical climate conducive to the massive spread of mosquito-borne illness. And even in places like southern Florida and Texas, many people can escape the heat.
"The fact that we have more access to screens and air conditioning by itself is probably very highly protective," Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said during a recent Zika seminar, according to Health Day.
It's expected states, such as Louisiana, will direct their prevention efforts toward areas like the Lake Pontchartrain region near New Orleans, most likely to be populated by the main carrier of Zika, the Aedes aegypti mosquito. "By really focusing on the neighborhoods where we know this mosquito is active, we really hope to head off local transmission," said Dr. Frank Welch, medical director of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals' Center for Community Preparedness.
Similarly, Mara Gambineri, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, commented, "We're working to make sure that all Florida residents and visitors are informed about Zika virus and mosquito-borne illness in general." Currently 17 counties are in a Declaration of Public Health Emergency in Florida.
Meanwhile, in Texas, areas of specific concern include the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Gulf Coast, and near the state's border with Mexico.
The amount of people who will travel in and out of the country this summer, especially from areas experiencing Zika outbreaks, is also concerning to officials, who are enacting a three-pronged plan to keep the spread of the virus as contained as possible:
1. Improving mosquito control. People are being urged to manage the spread of mosquitoes on their own property by eliminating standing water in kiddie pools, pots, and other containers. On a large scale, unfortunately, there is only so much the government can do. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden commented, "Unfortunately in Puerto Rico, many of the pyrethroid insecticides met with a high degree of resistance. So I saw very effective insecticides with mosquitoes flying happily around an hour later; it doesn't affect it whatsoever. And then with at least one of the insecticides, mosquitoes were knocked down within 15 minutes."
2. Expanding their ability to test for Zika. According to Health Day, two tests for the virus currently exist: a PCR test that looks for the virus' genetic material in a person's bloodstream, and a test called the MAC-ELISA, which looks at a person's blood for Zika antibodies. Both have limitations; specifically, as Dr. Rick Pesano, Quest Diagnostics' vice president of research and development explains, the PCR tests can only detect an active Zika infection. But people typically clear the virus from their bloodstream in a week. Pregnant women will benefit most from the MAC-ELISA test, but it is tougher to administer, not as readily available, may result in false positive diagnoses, and in general, results can take longer to produce.
3. Urging the public to protect themselves against mosquitoes. Women living in areas where transmission is possible, and who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant are being advised to wear long sleeves and pants while outside, and also to apply bug repellent. Incredibly, they are also being urged to stay inside as much as possible. Since the virus can be sexually transmitted, women should use condoms and abstain from having intercourse with a male partner if they're living in an active Zika area. They should wait to have sex for at least eight weeks if the man traveled to an active Zika area, or for at least six months if the man has Zika.
The proactive approach health officials are taking in the fight against the spread of this illness is undoubtedly encouraging. But Zika is still a very frightening virus that will hopefully stay very contained in this country in the coming weeks and months of summer.
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.