Zika: This Summer’s Blockbuster?

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Hot steamy climate? Abundant mosquito population? Access to an international airport? If your community answers Yes to those questions, as does Southwest Florida, then you live in a conducive environment for the spread of the Zika virus. Health professionals, in fact, predict Zika will reach the southern United States including Florida sometime this summer, making it potentially a bigger blockbuster than the recent Avengers movie.

While new to the US, experts identified it in 1947 in Uganda’s Zika Forest. There were just 15 cases worldwide until 2007, when a significant outbreak occurred in Southeast Asia. Authorities recently confirmed the virus causes microcephaly in newborns, along with potential paralysis and other serious complications in adults. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is on its highest alert level for Zika – only the fourth time in its history that it implemented this measure. The World Health Organization estimates that over 3 million people in the Americas will contract Zika in 2016.

There are roughly 500 current Zika cases in the US, brought here by overseas travelers, with 105 or over 20% in Florida. To this point, 43 of the 50 states report Zika travel-related illnesses, but to date there are no locally-transmitted cases in the nation.

Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitos spread the illness. Incubation is 2 to 10 days, and only 20% who contract it will display symptoms, with few hospitalizations. Once you get Zika you are immune. Mosquitos, infected blood, and sexual contact transmit Zika, with avoiding mosquito bites the best defense. The most common ailments are a low-grade fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. There currently is no vaccine or cure, just like the flu, but the illness usually goes away on its own in a week to 10 days.

Florida experienced its first Zika diagnosis in January, after people returned home from being infected in countries experiencing outbreaks. Since then, travel-related Zika cases in The Sunshine State now stand at 105, including 7 pregnant women. The most – 57 – are in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, with four in Lee and one in Collier. Once the rainy season begins, it is only a matter of time before Florida has its first local transmission of an uninfected mosquito biting a person with Zika, then passing it on to a healthy individual.

Local efforts remain the best options. Most Floridians already generally enjoy excellent mosquito awareness and eradication programs, with screens and air-conditioning in many buildings, but risks can be high, especially for pregnant women. Zika can be the first virus in over a half-century to impact the neurological development of fetuses, a chilling prospect in a geographic area with as many yearly births as The Sunshine State. If you are pregnant, do not travel to Zika-infected areas; if you must, do everything possible to protect yourself from mosquito bites, such as remaining in screened or air-conditioned places and wearing long sleeves and repellent with DEET.

“Preventing disease in and from local mosquitoes is our primary aim and focus,” says T. Wayne Gale, executive director of the Lee County Mosquito Control District. “Fortunately for our residents, due to Lee County’s subtropical and rainy weather, we have a proactive plan in place to control illnesses like Zika.” Lee is the only Florida county with its own testing laboratory to attain same day results to initiate immediate action. It sets traps in high risk locations, and should it find Zika will immediately initiate aerial and ground adulticide followed by aerial and ground larvicide to quickly knock down the adult population. Aedes are residential, attracted to houseplants, artificial containers, standing water and birdbaths. They do not fly far, so if they are in one yard they will remain there or only venture a few properties over, making it extremely difficult to spread the virus. Once detected, Mosquito Control will inundate a half-square-mile radius several times over the immediate weeks to drop the population.

Michael Mills, director of Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control, said his office monitors hot spots like artificial containers, tires, and drains daily, to empty these of water. “Mosquito larvae cannot live without water, so if you dump it the air kills the larvae before they become adults. On Fort Myers Beach, we win the ground war before the war breaks out.” Mr. Gale concurs, saying “When it comes to Zika, with our plan and precautions, Lee County will be fine!”

For further information see the CDC Zika webpage at www.cdc.gov/zika or the Florida Department of Health at www.floridahealth.gov Call the Florida Statewide Zika Virus Information Hotline at 855-622-6235, the Florida Department of Health in Lee County at 239-332-9580, or Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control at 239-463-6350.

Take Zika precautions now to ensure the only Summer Blockbuster you experience this year is at the movies!

Gary Mooney