Though cases of the Zika virus have been identified in states as close as Virginia, it has not yet been found in North Carolina, and local officials are being proactive in trying to keep it out of New Hanover County.
The infection is mainly mosquito-borne, and while the species transmitting the disease in other parts of the world, aedes aegypti, is not found in the state, county officials have identified a local species that could be a potential carrier.
The Asian tiger mosquito, a tiny species measuring from one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch, is the main focus of the county’s plan. The small bugs, which have black bodies and white stripes, also transmit dengue and chikungunya and differ from the aedes aegypti in that they bite animals as well as humans.
“We know what the pest is and we try to control it,” Hemmen said. “We have to make sure we use everything we have.”
That includes several things, such as surveillance of the species (for habitat, abundance and location of larva, among other things) and spraying to kill adult Asian tiger mosquitos. The most important part of pest control, said officials, is community involvement and engagement with source reduction.
“Control starts at home with the elimination of source habitats,” said Hemmen, saying this small species only needs an eighth of an inch of standing water to breed. “It’s important to remember to ‘tip and toss.'”
Hemmen said homes and backyards are ripe mosquito breeding grounds because of all the places that catch and contain standing water. Flower pots (especially the drip trays placed underneath pots, which Hemmen said are “unnecessary”), gutters, old tires, tarps, boats, pools and bird baths are the biggest concerns. Officials said smaller containers should be “tipped and tossed” every five days (it takes seven to 10 days for an Asian tiger mosquito to grow from an egg to an adult), and larger ones should be treated with larvicide or mosquito dunks. Those with ornamental ponds are encouraged to keep them stocked with fish, which help control mosquito larva.
“We’re focusing on prevention and protection,” said Dave Rice, the director of the New Hanover County Department of Health. “Public health has been very strong with preparedness. We need to make sure we control the vector.”
While a potential source has been identified and targeted, there are still many unknowns about the virus itself.
“We’re learning something new every day,” said Dr. Jessica Burkett, the medical director of the county’s health department. “Our information is changing frequently.”
While there is currently no vaccine for Zika, it is rarely lethal to humans, unlike other diseases like dengue and yellow fever that are carried by mosquitoes in the aedes family. According to Burkett, infected adults will experience flu-like symptoms (if they exhibit any at all, as only 20 percent of patients do) such as body aches, fevers, rashes and eye pain. Treatment involves “home-based therapy” such as Tylenol, chicken soup and lots of rest, said Burkett, and hospitalizations are rare.
“For adults, it’s going to be a miserable thing, then it’s gone,” Burkett said.
The risk for fatalities, said Burkett, could come with pregnancies. Though research is still being done, possible links between the virus and birth defects such as microcephaly (a condition in which babies are born with smaller heads, leading to possible health problems in the future) in Brazil have brought Zika to the forefront, Burkett said the virus could also lead to miscarriages.
While the Zika virus is new to the Americas, it was first identified in 1947 in Uganda, with the first known human case occurring in 1952. Since then, there have been outbreaks of the mosquito-borne virus in several countries across the world, mostly in tropical and sub-tropical areas, including several islands in the Pacific.
The first case of Zika in Latin America was first identified 10 months ago in Brazil, where the recent epidemic has centered. The virus has since spread northward, entering Central America and the Caribbean and recently, the United States.
Its seemingly rapid spread across continents in recent decades can be attributed to advancements in technology that have made it easier for people to get from one place to another. Burkett said pregnant women are discouraged from traveling to tropical areas as they are unsure at what stage of the pregnancy the virus is most dangerous to fetuses, and others should take proper precautions for mosquito bite prevention while abroad.
“International travel is a wonderful thing for humans, but a horrible thing for the transmission of diseases,” said Burkett. “What we’re seeing primarily are that the cases in the U.S. are from returning travelers. What we’re really worried about at this point is local transmission.”
Though mosquitoes are the main source of the virus, Burkett said there have been confirmed cases of transmission through human semen, and research is also being done on transmittal through urine and saliva. Safe sex practices are always a good idea for the prevention of several diseases, said Burkett, and those who have recently returned from trips abroad should be extra cautious.
“It’s all still unknown,” said Rice. “We’re just preparing ourselves.”
More information on the Zika virus, including symptoms, treatment, a list of areas with outbreaks and precautions for pregnant women, can be found on the Center for Disease Control’s webiste at www.cdc.gov/zika. Local citizens with concerns can contact the New Hanover County Department of Health at (910) 798-6500 or visit their website at health.nhcgov.com.