|Mosquito repellent packets and other materials from the Health Department's public outreach effort on Zika.|
There have been small outbreaks of Zika as early as 2001, but the current epidemic that started in Brazil in 2015 and spread throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean “is a whole new ball game,” said Shawn Kiernan, an epidemiologist with the Fairfax County Health Department, at a Zika Town Hall at the Springfield Government Center Aug. 18.
The first confirmed case in Virginia surfaced in January 2016 when a traveler contracted the disease in an affected area. Since then there have been 60 confirmed cases in the state, half of them in Northern Virginia.
Avoid travel to Zika areas
Although Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact, nearly everyone infected with Zika in the United States had been travelers who contracted the disease from a mosquito bite in another county, Kiernan said.
There is one exception, however. In the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami, there are about 30 cases where health officials believe Zika has spread from mosquitoes that bit an infected person then transmitted the disease to someone else.
Zika symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. Four out of five people who contract Zika don’t show any symptoms, but can still pass along the disease to other people if bit by a mosquito. “That’s how the disease can be transmitted throughout the population,” Kiernan said.
It takes three to 14 days for the symptoms to show up, and the virus can stay active in a person’s body for 21 days. There is no medication to treat Zika and no vaccine to prevent it.
The biggest concern is for pregnant woman, who if they contract Zika have a higher probability of having a baby with microcephaly, a condition in which the head and brain are smaller at birth.
This is the first time a mosquito-borne disease has been transmitted to a fetus. “This is unprecedented,” Kiernan said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established a Zika pregnancy registry to track pregnant women testing positive for Zika to see if they are at risk for other birth defects. Kiernan urges pregnant women to avoid traveling to affected areas. If their male partner travels to an affected area, they should avoid sex during the pregnancy or use condoms consistently.
There’s also a link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious but rare disorder that attacks the central nervous systems.
Anyone who has to travel to an affected area should avoid getting bit by mosquitoes for 21 days, Kiernan said, by staying indoors as much as possible, using mosquito repellent, and wearing protective clothing outside.When they return, travelers should avoid being bitten by a mosquito for at least three weeks to prevent the disease from spreading in Fairfax County.
Kiernan’s staff is testing pregnant women and others at risk of Zika infection and when they find a case, they’re taking steps to eliminate mosquitoes from the around their homes.
Josh Smith, with the disease-carrying insects program at the Fairfax County Health Department, said the county is collecting mosquitoes in 71 traps and so far hasn’t found any that tested positive for Zika.
According to Smith, the most important things residents can do to halt the spread of the disease are: (1) prevent mosquito bites and (2) eliminate standing water around yards where mosquitoes breed.
Check your backyard
He offered the following practical advice to reduce the threat of Zika:
• “Tip and toss.” Regularly dump water out of backyard containers like buckets, the trays under potted plants, tarps on woodpiles, and the grooves in corrugated drain pipes. This should be done once a week because the aquatic portion of mosquitoes’ life cycle – the larva and pupa stage – lasts seven to 10 days. Get rid of empty flower pots and buckets laying around and put away wheelbarrows and other items that collect water.
• Use larvicides in places where the water can’t be removed, such as fountains.
• Adult mosquitoes can usually be found in bushy vegetation, so spray those areas with insecticide, and make sure the product specifically targets mosquitoes.
• Use mosquito repellents and wear protective clothing outdoors, including long sleeves, long plants, socks and shoes. Clothing should be loose because mosquitoes can bite through tight clothes. Permethrin-treated clothing is also an option.
• Avoid going outside at dusk and dawn when the Asian Tiger Mosquito, the most common Zika carrier in Northern Virginia, is most active, although it can also bite during the day.
• To prevent mosquitoes from getting indoors, use air conditioning and repair door and window screens.