ATLANTA — States throughout the south and southwest already are in full springtime mode, with warm and wet days. Those are perfect conditions for the mosquito-borne Zika virus to spread rapidly, but public health officials and experts say resources are lacking for the kind of strong-defense surveillance and prevention needed.
"In a lot of places, it's one guy in the community who drives a snow plow in the winter and picks up fogger in the summer," Paul Ettestad of New Mexico's health department told a standing-room-only Zika summit here Friday.
The day's gathering, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is intended to help state and local officials plan for worst-case scenarios. But there are huge disparities in the level of readiness in counties — the front lines of mosquito control.
"It's a patchwork," said Lyle Petersen, who heads CDC's vector-borne diseases division, showing a map of counties in the continental United States with vector-control programs in place as of March 1. Many of those programs are stand-alone operations, which makes data sharing and planning coordination with health departments more difficult.
Through part of the country's midsection, states like Nebraska and Missouri don't appear to have anything in place. Even in states like Texas, which experts expect to be among the most likely locations for local transmission of Zika, vector-control programs are concentrated along the Gulf coast. What's more, even in states used to dealing with mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, the approach for the Aedes aegypti needs to be different, Petersen said.
Controlling West Nile typically includes community spraying. But the Aedes aegypti doesn't venture very far, with an approximate flight range of about 150 yards. So that means more targeted spraying around individual homes, Petersen said.
Their worries already have shifted officials' focus. In the Houston area, Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County public health and environmental services department, said his staff is spending significant time on Zika instead of on other duties. Doing surveillance of the mosquitoes — and pregnant women, who are most at risk — is critical, he said.
"We can't spray our way out of this situation," Shah told the summit.
Federal officials say the unprecedented kinds of health conditions linked to the pathogen greatly increases the urgency of action.
"We've never had a mosquito-borne pathogen that could result in a birth defect," said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, referring to the broad range of birth abnormalities now linked to the virus, including microcephaly, vision and hearing loss and other developmental problems for a newborn. "The mosquito population can double in days and weeks. Can our response keep pace?"
Officials referred to the lengthy delays by the World Health Organization and local governments in responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
"If we wait until the public is panicking because babies are being born with birth defects, we have waited too long," said Amy Pope, deputy homeland security advisor in the Obama administration.