County health officials expand campaign to prevent Zika virus is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

Containers holding stagnant water are prime breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Containers holding stagnant water are prime breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

As concerns over the Zika virus continue to make headlines around the world, local health officials have continued to work on a public education campaign on how to reduce a possible source of the virus: the Asian tiger mosquito.

Though the species of mosquito that has spread the virus in other parts of the world, the aedes aegypti, has not been present in New Hanover County since 1992, the Asian tiger, or aedes albopictus, has been identified as a potential carrier. According to Marie Hemmen, head of New Hanover County’s vector control, that particular species is hard to control solely through spraying.

“We can spray for them, but that would only take care of the adult ones already flying,” said Hemmen. “Unlike other species, the Asian tiger mosquito lives every cycle of its life in one container, so the best method to control them is source reduction. The spray doesn’t work as long as you still have that container.”

What that requires, according to Hemmen and New Hanover County Deputy Health Director Joshua Swift, is the participation of residents.

“We’re staying vigilant as far as keeping the mosquito population down,” Swift said. “But we’re really encouraging the public to practice the ‘tip and toss’ method, meaning dumping any containers that hold standing water where mosquitoes can breed.”

Due to the amount of public help needed to prevent the virus, which is non-lethal to healthy adults but can cause birth defects in babies born to women who are infected while pregnant, the county has launched a multi-faceted approach to disseminating information.

“Right now, as we speak, we have part-time staff going door-to-door in some neighborhoods to get this information out to residents,” Hemmen said. “We’ve contacted homeowners’ associations and neighborhood groups to get the word out that way, and for the residential communities that don’t have those, we’re knocking on doors.”

The county has also placed ads on the electronic billboards around town, such as the one near the intersection of Oleander Drive and College Road. Hemmen also recently created a new brochure, which contains information on the species, how to reduce their population, how to prevent bites and more. Before schools let out for the summer, 13,000 of the brochures were printed out and given to all elementary schoolchildren in the New Hanover County Public Schools system.

“We’re just trying to reach out as much as we can,” Hemmen said. “We’re trying to educate people of all ages, because we need all the help we can get.”

A curriculum for fifth grade students has also been created by Hemmen and a teacher from Gregory Elementary School that is now available for any teacher in the county to use.

“So far I’ve gone to Gregory twice to give a presentation, which is basically an interactive story involving the Asian tiger mosquito and ecosystems, as well as a pre-test and a post-test,” Hemmen said. “Based on the difference between the pre-test and post-test answers, I could tell the students really learned a lot.”

Hemmen said the presentation focuses on ecosystems and biomes, prey and predators, and shows how the Asian tiger mosquitoes survive and thrive because they only need an eighth of an inch of water to breed and don’t have many natural predators.

The money for the brochures, ads, and other aspects of the campaign came from a $3,000 stipend from the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps fund public health programs both nationally and internationally. According to Hemmen, they were also able to use leftover funds from the money given to the county to prevent Ebola and put that toward the Zika fight. That money, about $2,900, is also being used to fund a state project that monitors container-breeding mosquitoes (like the Asian tiger) as well as surveys what kinds of mosquito larva exist in the county.

“A base study of larval populations has not been done in a long time,” Hemmen said, noting that the aedes aegypti species has not been seen in New Hanover County since 1992, when aedes albopictus took over. “We’re just making sure we don’t have that species again.”

There have been no cases of Zika virus detected in New Hanover County. All of the cases found in the state and around the country were of people who went abroad and became infected there. No locally transmitted cases have been reported in the states, although there have been epidemics in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and American Samoa.

Mosquitoes are also known to carry other more deadly diseases, such as West Nile virus and chikungunya. According to Hemmen, there is always a possibility of those infections showing up, but there have been no reported cases of lethal mosquito-borne diseases in New Hanover County in recent years.

“I’m hoping that we don’t get any cases, Zika or anything else,” Hemmen said. “That’s why we’re really working hard on this public education campaign. We need everyone to do their part.”

“We’re really trying to minimize opportunities for mosquitoes to breed and possibly carry infections,” Deputy Director Swift said. “But it all starts at home.”