Friday, September 21, 2018
Health

Will Zika return to Florida this summer? Yes, and it could be worse

Wondering what's ahead for Zika?

This coming summer will likely look like last summer, when 1,100 travel-related cases were reported statewide, and the virus spread in small pockets of South Florida.

But there's a chance it could be worse.

"We are preparing for local transmission, and we are preparing for the worst-case scenario," said Dr. Beata Casanas, an infectious disease expert and associate professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

Scientists agree on one point: They need more money to research and fight the virus. Federal funding for Zika has mostly run out, with its future unclear. And new cases are already popping up in Florida.

Zika made international headlines last year, when researchers determined the mosquito-transmitted virus was responsible for a spike in the number of birth defects across South America and the Caribbean.

A recent analysis from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the risk to pregnant women is much greater than researchers initially thought. Its key finding: One in 10 pregnant women with confirmed Zika infections in the United States last year had a baby or fetus with serious birth defects.

The United States wasn't as hard hit as countries like Brazil and Venezuela, largely because homes in the U.S. do a better job of keeping mosquitoes out. Still, Zika was enough of a problem in Florida that Gov. Rick Scott called on state health officials to prepare, and authorized millions of dollars in emergency funding to study and control the virus.

It is impossible to say what this year will bring.

Since January, the state Health Department has tallied 33 travel-related cases of Zika and two locally acquired cases.

Mosquito season won't peak until the summer.

One reason this year's threat might be greater than last year's: There is evidence the Zika virus can survive in mosquito eggs. And mosquito eggs can lie dormant for months, if not years.

"If they are already primed with the virus, they are ready for the next season," said Derric Nimmo of the British biotechnology firm Oxitec, which has created genetically modified mosquitoes to help stop the spread of viruses like Zika. "The virus doesn't have to be brought into the country."

Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute, acknowledged that "transovarial transmission" is a possibility. But he believes the worst is over for Zika.

"We are just now starting to pick up the pieces," he said.

Still, Morris is troubled by the lack of funding that exists for researching Zika and other viruses like it. State lawmakers are considering a budget that includes money for research and additional state epidemiologists. But federal money that was supposed to last five years will likely run out this summer, according to published reports.

"The biggest thing to emphasize is that there will be another epidemic," Morris told reporters at a health journalism conference last week. "And while we are talking about Zika today, I have to admit, I probably have more concerns about the next big flu epidemic."

Despite the uncertainty, Casanas, the USF professor, says Florida residents should begin taking precautions now. That's especially true for pregnant women, who should wear mosquito repellent and avoid travel to countries where the disease is spreading.

Casanas pointed out that there is still no Zika vaccine or medication. "Right now, protection and education are the only things we have to work with," she said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

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