TAMPA — With the warm and wet summer months fast approaching, officials said Tuesday that Tampa Bay area residents can — and should — take steps to prevent getting Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has quickly become a major international health concern.
Their primary focus: women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant this summer. U.S. Health Department officials confirmed this month that Zika can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an unusually small head size.
Wearing insect repellent and long-sleeve shirts can be effective in avoiding mosquito bites, said Dr. Jamie Morano, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. She also is advising women to stay inside at dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most likely to bite.
"If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you need to stay indoors more than usual," said Morano, one of several doctors and health officials who gathered in a back yard in Tampa with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor to show how the public can help control the virus.
Zika has been spreading across Latin America for the past six months. Those infected often don't know they have the virus, but it can have serious consequences if passed on to a fetus.
"Those newborns may be affected with seizures, hearing loss and other devastating intellectual and cognitive impairments that place a great burden on pregnant women and their families," said Dr. Jose Prieto, an obstetrician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Nearly 100 cases of Zika have been identified in Florida, accounting for about a quarter of all cases nationwide. All have been travel-related, meaning the patient recently traveled to a country where Zika is prevalent.
But experts say that could change this summer, when temperatures are right for the Aedes aegypti mosquito to thrive and reproduce, particularly in Florida.
"My suspicion is that with Zika virus infection, local transmission will arrive at some point," Prieto said.
As for eliminating the mosquitoes to begin with, it's as simple as draining unused flowerpots, tires and upside-down Frisbees, said Hillsborough County Public Works director John Lyons.
"Anything that traps water," he said, noting that standing water can be a breeding ground.
Homeowners should also repair any holes in their window screens, he said. And if they notice an abundance of mosquitoes, they can call the county for help.
"Our folks will come out, meet with you, inspect your yard and take care of it," Lyons said.
In addition, he said, the county has increased the number of mosquito traps — and will be doing more "strategic" aerial spraying to kill the insects.
"The mission is to reduce the mosquito population as much as possible, so we're active in doing that across the county," Lyons said.
Prieto, the All Children's physician, believes those efforts will make a difference.
"The good thing here is that mosquito control is much better than in some Central and South American countries," he said. "We have a public works department that sprays."
Even so, Castor, a Tampa Democrat, said it will take "an entire community effort" to stop the spread of the virus in the Tampa Bay area. She is leading an effort to educate her constituents about the virus and preventive measures.
"We want to make sure our neighbors have the tools they need," she said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.