Health officials continue efforts to keep Zika out of New Hanover County

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Flower pot saucers or drainage trays collect water, making them potential breeding grounds for mosquitos. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Flower pot saucers or drainage trays collect water, making them potential breeding grounds for mosquitos. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

While locally transmitted cases of Zika virus have surfaced in south Florida in recent weeks, North Carolina is still free of the mosquito-borne illness. That’s something that New Hanover County health officials are looking to continue as the summer rolls on.

“We’re really still focusing on public education,” said Marie Hemmen, environmental health supervisor in charge of vector control for the county. “Teaching residents to ‘tip and toss’ to prevent mosquito breeding grounds is our biggest goal.”

The practice involves citizens making sure there is no standing water around their homes or workplaces, a habit the county has been advocating for since February. According to Hemmen, the Asian tiger mosquito, which lives in the area and has been identified as a Zika virus carrier, needs only an eighth of an inch of water to breed.

“It’s important to dump out containers that could be potential breeding grounds – pots, containers, that sort of thing,” Hemmen said. “We’re still getting a lot of calls [about potential mosquito breeding grounds] from people, but spraying is really a last resort. That’s just getting them at the end of their life cycle.”

Deputy Health Director Joshua Swift agreed.

“It’s just like any other pest or insect,” Swift said. “You’ve got to get rid of it at the source.”

The new cases in Florida, which were transmitted by a different but related species of mosquito, are the first instances of local transmission on the mainland of the U.S. All other cases up to that point, including the ones that had been reported in other parts of North Carolina, were contracted abroad. Though it has affected health departments and services in the Miami area, it has not brought about a widespread shift in prevention methods here.

“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] has not changed any of its procedures,” said Carla Turner, New Hanover County’s personal health services manager. “In fact, we’ve been under the same directives since May.”

Still, officials say the lack of any mosquito-borne diseases in the county doesn’t mean precautions will be lifted.

“We need to continue to make sure we don’t have issues, especially with Asian tiger mosquitos, which have been our biggest concern,” said Hemmen, who in addition to going into neighborhoods, will be continuing the campaign she started last school year to educate New Hanover County public school students and their parents. “No one knows at this point what will happen, so we need to keep educating the public and pushing ‘tip and toss.'”

Though it’s unclear what the risk of the virus moving northward is, Swift said it’s important for both health officials and the public to stay vigilant.

“It’s on our radar and we’re staying aware of what’s going on,” Swift said. “But we really need the public’s help to keep the number of mosquitos down.”