The Tampa Bay area is one of nine in the U.S. that could see large numbers of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes — the kind that carries Zika virus — come July, according to a recent study in the journal PLOS Currents: Outbreaks.
The study , which used climate data from 50 major cities to simulate the abundance of mosquitoes, found the insect could thrive as far north as New York and Philadelphia in July, August and September.
But the cities at greatest risk for the spread of the mosquito — and thus, the Zika virus — are along the Gulf Coast and on the Atlantic Seaboard from Miami to Charleston.
The findings did not surprise Dr. David Berman, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine who was not involved in the study.
"It makes sense because we have the mosquito here," Berman said. "We have the right climate. We're going to be in the rainy season. We have poverty and free-standing water."
Still, that doesn't mean the Southeastern United States should expect an outbreak, he said.
"There are other factors to take into account," he said. "We have good mosquito control. We can educate about window screens. We can educate about insect repellent."
The mosquito-borne Zika virus has been spreading across Central and South America for six months. Most people who contract the virus are unaware they have it; one in five experience mild, cold-like symptoms.
Zika could, however, be a problem for pregnant women. Physicians in countries such as Brazil and Colombia have noticed an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly , a condition marked by an unusually small head and underdeveloped brain. And while scientists have yet to prove that Zika causes microcephaly, a number of studies suggest a link.
As of Monday, 71 cases of Zika had been reported in Florida, including three in Hillsborough County. All have involved people who traveled to countries where the virus is widespread, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The new study, authored by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and three universities, found conditions are poor for the Aedes aegypti mosquito in most U.S. cities in the winter months. The only cities with a "low" or "moderate" risk in January were Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Brownsville, Texas.
It's a different story in the summer, however, especially in Florida. The warm and wet weather conditions are ideal for mosquitoes. Adding to state's risk: the high number of travelers coming in from Latin America.
Public health officials are taking steps to intervene.
A British company called Oxitec is waiting on final approval to release genetically engineered mosquitoes that could help control the spread of Zika in the Florida Keys. The male Oxitec mosquitoes mate with wild Aedes aegypti females; their offspring die before becoming adults.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found the Oxitec mosquitoes would not cause "significant impacts on the environment," an important first step for the trial. And on Monday, the World Health Organization issued a positive recommendation in support of their release.
"Given the prevalence and the spread of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, it's worth being concerned about it and trying to do something about it," said Jack Bobo, a spokesperson for Oxitec's parent company.
Still, the idea has met resistance from local environmental activists, who say Oxitec should have sought permission from the residents of Key Haven, the community near Key West where the trial would take place.
Dr. Beata Casanas, an associate professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said she believes physicians, public health officials and environmental experts have other effective tools to fight against Zika. She pointed to successful efforts to eradicate the mosquito-transmitted Dengue virus in Florida in 2009 and 2014.
"We have the resources here to deal with it in a very swift manner," Casanas said. "I don't think Zika will take a foothold in the Tampa Bay area."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.