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As Florida Gov. Rick Scott raises the alarm on Zika virus, Tampa Bay mosquito control officials say don't panic yet

TAMPA — Here's what we know: The Zika virus and the two species of mosquitoes known to carry it are in the Tampa Bay area.

And on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott announced the number of confirmed Florida cases of the Zika virus has risen to 12, including three in Hillsborough County. He urged Floridians to be prepared, "just like a hurricane."

So is it time for locals to panic?

No, say area mosquito control and health officials. Just pay attention.

Mosquitoes are a part of life in Florida, and that means the occasional scare of mosquito-transmitted diseases.

"We don't have any medication, we don't have any vaccine," said Beata Casanas, a professor in the Division of Infectious Disease at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. "And so our only weapon is prevention.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Here's what you need to know about Zika virus if you live in Florida

Health officials say all 12 of the confirmed cases in Florida are travel-related, and there have been no known transmissions within the state.

Still, Scott on Thursday expanded the public health emergency in the state to include Broward County, adding to a list that already included Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Santa Rosa and Lee counties.

And the Zika virus and the mosquitoes that transmit it — aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus — certainly present some unique and potentially scary challenges.

There is still much health experts don't know about the virus. Reports have connected Zika to a serious birth defect of the brain on the rise in Brazil called microcephaly, although according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "knowledge of the link ... is evolving."

Scott is asking the CDC to provide at least 1,000 kits to test pregnant women who show symptoms of the virus, though none of the people who have been infected in Florida are pregnant women, his office said.

About one in five who contract the virus show symptoms, which include fever, rash and joint pain.

There also are reports that Zika may be sexually transmitted. That would make it quite different, and potentially more difficult to contain, than other recent mosquito-related outbreaks in Florida like chikungunya and dengue fever. Both those diseases are spread by the same mosquitoes that spread Zika.

Those mosquitoes are prevalent in the Tampa Bay region. Unlike certain species that congregate in swamps or wooded areas, they are very common in residential and urban areas. They are ankle-biters that thrive in man-made containers that can collect and hold water.

"They're the cockroaches of the insect world," said Dennis Moore, director for Pasco County Mosquito Control District. "They're closely associated with people."

RELATED: Hillsborough commissioners request action plan

Traps deployed by local counties — 65 in Hillsborough and 52 in Pinellas — aren't very effective because these mosquitoes only bite humans. They are most active during the daytime, which isn't ideal for mosquito control trucks that mostly spray at night, said Carlos Fernandez, director of Hillsborough County Mosquito Control.

"The only way we know if it's in the area is through the Department of Health," said Brian Lawton, program coordinator for Pinellas County Mosquito Control and Vegetation Management.

Luckily, the aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus mosquitoes are not strong flyers and don't live very long. That makes it harder for them to spread the Zika virus here. Floridians also have homes with window screens, an uncommon luxury in Brazil, where the outbreak is most troublesome.

A strain of colder weather here expected over the next week will help keep mosquito populations at bay during the current outbreak. The mosquitoes' life cycle speeds up and appetite increases in warmer temperatures.

Where the Zika virus or the mosquitoes known to carry it are found locally, mosquito control officials in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas said they'll use hand-held spray equipment to kill them at that location. Barring a major outbreak, all three jurisdictions said they believe they have the resources necessary to properly control the mosquito populations.

Meanwhile, the community can help by avoiding abandoned pools and preventing water from collecting in bird baths, old tires and other containers in their own yards, Lawton said.

Moore, in Pasco, said Scott's call for a state of emergency was appropriate "because this could be something huge."

University of South Florida public health and medicine professor Jay Wolfson said the announcement may have been driven partly by politics.

"Is there a political component to declaring a medical state of emergency? Yes. That's what politicians do," Wolfson said. "At the same time, I think it is responsible that (Florida Surgeon General) Dr. Armstrong and the governor said, 'We're in Florida, we need to be really attentive.' "

Public awareness of the Zika virus ought to be raised, he said.

"We are on the same continent where it is happening," he said. "And it is a year when people are going to be traveling a lot to the source of the infection."

Times reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

As Florida Gov. Rick Scott raises the alarm on Zika virus, Tampa Bay mosquito control officials say don't panic yet 02/04/16 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2016 9:24pm]
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