Zika virus has taken center stage in the news during the past several months, and you'll likely hear much more as the summer Olympics in Brazil approach in early August.
The World Health Organization recently declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern, so the potential for an outbreak in the United States demands our immediate attention.
So, you may ask, what is Zika virus, and should we be concerned in Florida?
Zika is a virus spread primarily through the bite of a mosquito. Two local species, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are the two potential vectors that can transmit this virus and are frequently found closely associated with residents living in Pasco County. The primary culprit, Aedes aegypti, is commonly found in containers scattered throughout urban environments, which provide an ideal habitat for the mosquitoes to develop. This mosquito breeds in containers providing a source of standing water, including items such as buckets, plant saucers, birdbaths, tires, bromeliads, rain barrels, wheelbarrows, rain gutters, etc.
It is very important to note that there have been no locally acquired infections reported in the United States, with the exception of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But because the Aedes aegypti mosquito lives in Florida, and with the large amount of travel to and from Zika endemic areas, there is a real risk for a possible outbreak of locally acquired infections.
Many people infected with Zika don't have any symptoms, and one out of five will have very mild symptoms, so these infections could potentially go undetected. It is reasonable to expect that Zika will eventually be locally acquired somewhere in Florida, since cases of other mosquito viruses followed the same path, such as dengue and chikungunya.
Why is Zika virus so unique, and why is it getting so much attention? This is the first time a mosquito-transmitted disease has ever caused deformities in a human fetus, plus it can be sexually transmitted. Zika infection during pregnancy is a real problem because it can cause a birth defect in which the baby's head is smaller than normal, or microcephalic. Other problems, such as eye diseases, have been detected among fetuses and infants infected with Zika.
Florida currently has more than 200 travel-related cases of Zika virus, including 40 pregnant women, with four cases occurring in Pasco County. All of the cases involve residents infected outside the country. But if mosquitoes in the state started transmitting the disease, it could have a profound effect on tourism.
The staff at the Pasco County Mosquito Control District has been busy responding to the many reported suspect cases by setting additional traps, conducting extensive walk-throughs to look for mosquito larvae in containers and treating the adult mosquitoes with our night ultra-low-volume spray trucks.
Homeowners can take an active role to eliminate Aedes aegypti on their property by getting rid of anything that holds water. Although these mosquitoes stay close to home, they still fly, so it's important for entire neighborhoods to get involved. We encourage residents to take this seriously, since any container holding water will very likely produce mosquitoes if left in place. Mosquitoes can lay eggs and grow in water from rain collected in objects as small as bottle caps. We need the help of our residents to stay ahead of this virus.
Visit our website at pascomosquito.org or call (727) 376-4568 for more information.
Dennis Moore is director of the Pasco County Mosquito Control District.