As warm weather returns and the last days of school draw near, I’m sure that, like me, you’re looking forward to spending a lot of time outdoors this summer. As you read troubling headlines from Latin America and other parts of the world about the Zika virus, I’m also sure you are concerned about how to keep yourself and your family safe.
Let’s first understand the virus and the threat it poses to Virginia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Zika virus spreads primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which is one of the types of mosquito present in Virginia during the summer months. According to the CDC, Texas, Florida and Hawaii are likely to be the US states with the highest risk of experiencing local transmission of Zika virus by mosquitoes, based on prior experience with similar viruses. However, additional states are assumed to be at some risk due to the presence of Aedes mosquitoes. While, as of May 11, there have been 15 cases of Zika virus among individuals traveling abroad and returning to the Commonwealth (or among family members and close contacts of such individuals), there have been no recorded cases of someone contracting the virus from a mosquito in Virginia. Furthermore, while I’m writing this, no one has been shown to have acquired the virus from a mosquito bite anywhere within the continental United States.
Most people infected with the Zika virus display no symptoms. Among those whose infections do develop into Zika virus disease, the illness is largely mild and marked by fever, rash, joint pain and/or red eyes for two to seven days. An infection usually does not lead to hospitalization, and death from Zika is extremely rare.
As you probably already know, though, the virus does pose significant risks to a fetus during pregnancy. The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both concluded that Zika infection during pregnancy is a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.
Because of the connection between Zika and birth defects and the rare health threats the virus can pose to infected individuals, it is important for us to prevent the spread of the disease now and minimize our own risk of infection.
On Thursday, May 19, the Senate voted to approve a bipartisan $1.1 billion package to prevent transmission of the virus and treat infections. I also supported a larger $1.9 billion package that provided more resources to the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Health and Human Services to address this crisis both at home and abroad. Combined with efforts already underway by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and many localities, this federal effort would ensure that a robust public health initiative is in place to help control this pandemic.
With public health officials at each level of government working to combat this disease, we should consider our own role in preventing infection and stopping the potential spread of the virus. VDH recommends that Virginians follow the CDC’s guidance for preventing Zika. By visiting www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention or www.ZikaVA.org, you can learn about what types of insect repellent are most effective at preventing mosquito bites and how bed nets, water treatment tabs, permethrin spray and condoms can help prevent the transmission of the disease in your home and outdoors. On www.ZikaVA.org, you can see the state Zika plan and other Virginia-specific information.
The CDC’s site contains specific guidance for pregnant women (www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy), women and couples considering pregnancy (www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy/thinking-about-pregnancy) and parents (www.cdc.gov/zika/parents).
The Aedes mosquito does not fly far from where it breeds. Therefore, it is important to prevent the population of mosquitoes from growing in and around your home. Make sure to use window and door screens; regularly clean, turn over, cover or throw out any indoor and outdoor items that hold water (e.g. tires, flower vases, toys, garbage bins); and use sprays or foggers to kill mosquitoes. For more information on where to look out for mosquitoes and what products to use in controlling them around your home, you can visit www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention/controlling-mosquitoes-at-home.
It’s important to reiterate that there are currently no reported cases of mosquitoes transmitting the Zika virus in Virginia or anywhere else in the continental United States. While this fact offers us some reassurance, it also provides us with a clean slate and golden opportunity to prevent or lessen the severity of a large-scale outbreak in the coming months. With proactive and responsive steps from all levels of government and due care from each of us, we can take control of this public health threat and enjoy this summer to its fullest.