With Zika on horizon, experts urge caution, prevention

Published 5:15 am Saturday, May 21, 2016

With spring come mosquitos.

And this year those mosquitos in vast portions of the South, including Louisiana, could bring the Zika virus.

To date, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have reported four cases in the state. But in reality, experts say many more cases likely went undetected.

Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for community preparedness for the Department of Health and Hospitals, said Zika is a fairly mild illness for most people.

“Zika in adults is a really, really mild illness,” he said. “Four out of five people who are bringing Zika back to Louisiana don’t know they have it. And for those one out of five who do develop an illness, it is really mild and can often be confused with allergies.”

Symptoms can include mild fever or a rash, but they also could be merely itchy, red eyes. Welch said that because the symptoms are so minor, most people don’t see a doctor.

Yet this particular strain of Zika has been a serious threat to fetuses in Brazil.

According to the CDC, there is now enough evidence to show that Zika in Brazil caused microcephaly and “other severe fetal brain defects.” Microcephaly is a condition where the baby’s head is smaller than expected due to improper brain development.

So far, no babies born in the United States have been shown to have microcephaly due to Zika, and the CDC points out that there is much uncertainty about the Zika virus. For instance, the CDC says it is not yet known how likely a pregnant woman is to get Zika if she is exposed or, if she does get the virus, how it will affect her or her pregnancy. Scientists can’t even say how likely it is if a mother does get Zika that she could pass it on to her fetus, and even if a fetus is infected, scientists can’t say what harm there could be.

“We don’t know when in pregnancy the infection might cause harm to the fetus,” the CDC points out in a long list of unknowns.

But the CDC is reporting that each of the four cases in Louisiana were brought here from somewhere else. Travelers from the Caribbean or Latin America picked up the illness and brought it home. However, as mosquito season ramps up, experts expect that Zika will find permanent home in the US.

Welch points out that the mosquito that carries Zika, the Aedes aegypti, prefers to live near humans. This is somewhat good news.

“The best way to prevent that mosquito from transmitting Zika is by eliminating the mosquito,” Welch said.

Welch urges homeowners and renters to make weekly checks around their yard and neighborhood and dump out standing water.

“There are a lot of mosquitos in Louisiana, so doing that once-a-week prevention, just having people go out once a week in their neighborhood and making sure there’s no standing water can help,” he said.

In addition, he encourages residents to wear bug spray or long sleeves.

The virus can also be spread through sexual contact, so Welch advised men who have been infected and who are with partners who are pregnant to wear protection.

Most cities, including Bogalusa, have mosquito control programs. Welch said it is possible some of control programs could get extra funding for expansions once federal Zika money is approved.

This past week, President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika, and on Tuesday the Senate approved $1.1 billion in emergency funds. Once the president authorizes the expense, Welch said he expects some of that money to trickle down to local levels. Welch said some of the funding could be used to beef up mosquito control and some money will likely be used for local education.

Even during a time of budget uncertainty, Welch said the state health department has itself been preparing for the virus.

“We’ve been preparing for Zika for about five months and I am proud of the work we’ve done, but the federal funding package for Zika will take the work we’ve done and put it down to the neighborhood level,” he said.