Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Health

Citizens, legislators must step up to stop spread of Zika virus

In 2014, four people on U.S. soil were diagnosed with Ebola, and only one of them had contracted the disease in the United States, after caring for a patient with Ebola. The nation was in a panic. People were choosing not to fly on planes, and we were ready to quarantine thousands of travelers from Africa. Congress appropriated $5 billion to combat Ebola.

Today, Zika virus is presumed to be the cause of microcephaly in thousands of newborns in South America. The connection between Zika and microcephaly has been made in Brazil, which has confirmed more than 1,300 cases it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. No local mosquito-borne Zika virus disease cases have been reported in the United States, but there have been travel-associated and sexually transmitted cases. With the recent outbreaks, the number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase. These imported cases could result in local spread of the virus in some areas of the United States, primarily the Gulf Coast. It is possible that after the hysteria surrounding Ebola, when only a few cases occurred on U.S. soil, Americans may be reluctant to be too concerned, but Zika is poised to be a public health crisis in the United States and it seems no one is paying attention. As of Wednesday, the number of reported Zika cases in Florida was 112. That same day, cases in U.S. states totaled 503, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zika virus disease (Zika) is caused by Zika virus, which is spread primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. The virus was first discovered in 1947 in the Zika Forest in Uganda, and the first case of human disease was in 1952. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness usually is mild, with symptoms lasting several days to a week. People usually don't get sick enough to go to the hospital or even seek medical care, and people rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people don't even realize they've been infected. Zika infections during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects in newborns, the most common among them microcephaly, a condition marked by an unusually small head and underdeveloped brain.

There remains some uncertainty as to why some babies born to infected mothers are normal and others have microcephaly. What we do know is that there is no cure for Zika virus. The only way to prevent Zika is by staving off mosquito bites. The mosquitoes that spread Zika virus bite mostly in the daytime and are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Zika can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, so condom use can help prevent infection.

We know that those of us living in the Gulf Coast states, where the tropical climate is hospitable to mosquitoes, are most likely to be impacted by Zika virus.

The Obama administration has requested $1.9 billion to combat the spread of Zika in the United States, yet some members of the House and Senate, especially those in the Southern states, have opposed allocating these funds. The money is needed to ramp up surveillance efforts, control the mosquitoes spreading Zika, accelerate research into new vaccines and diagnostic tests and help countries already battling the virus. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott appealed to lawmakers in Washington to set aside differences and reach a conclusion on federal funding to fight the virus. After meeting with Florida Republicans on Capitol Hill, Scott told reporters that "Florida is going to be the epicenter, so we need to deal with it right now." He spoke as a possible deal emerged in the Senate to provide $1.1 billion in funding.

Our legislators must understand that it is time to put people over politics because the lives of our most vulnerable citizens are at stake. This is the time to call or email your local legislators to let them know you are concerned about the spread of Zika.

What can we do personally? Take preventive measures. Pregnant women should talk to a doctor or other health care provider if they or their male sex partners recently traveled to an area with Zika, even if they don't feel sick. We don't know how long Zika virus can remain in semen.

Mosquito bites must be avoided:

• Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts outdoors.

• Control indoor mosquitoes.

• Remove areas of stagnant water to deter mosquito breeding.

• Use insect repellents like DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol, which are safe in pregnant and breastfeeding women. Apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent. Caution must be exercised in the use of these products on infants and young children.

• Treat clothing and gear with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated items.

Zika has the potential to cause a lot of illness and suffering in the United States, but with vigilance and proper funding there is no reason why this "public health emergency of international concern," as designated by the World Health Organization, cannot be stopped in its tracks.

Dr. Mona V. Mangat is a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in St. Petersburg. Find her at bayallergy.com. Contact her at [email protected]

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