Friday, April 29, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Fight against Zika virus

Who would have thought mosquitoes would become such bearers of illness — malaria, chikungunya, West Nile virus and now Zika — threatening entire populations including the unborn?

The state Health Department held a press conference April 22 to alert the public to the latest threat posed by mosquitoes, Zika, a mild viral infection which poses little threat beyond mild flu-like symptoms in adults but which can deliver harmful and even fatal consequences to the unborn, from microcephaly (an unusually small head) to other birth defects and severe fetal outcomes including death.

The Health Department has aligned itself with Little Rock Air Force Base, which is concerned about Zika because of frequent deployments of its airmen, often to countries with the virus.

The Leader reported Wednesday that State Health Department Epidemiologist Dirk Haselow says pregnant women who have traveled to an affected area may be tested for the virus by the Health Department. If the test is positive, he said the agency recommends a number of ultrasounds before birth. He said those patients would be added to a Zika registry.

Brazil, which has had the greatest incidence of microcephaly due to maternal Zika illness, reported 4,863 unconfirmed cases in March. Brazil is considered to be the center of the Zika epidemic, which has been called a pandemic along with West Nile virus, Dengue fever and chikungunya, which originated in Africa but recently caused an epidemic in Hawaii. Global travel has contributed to the spread of mosquito-borne viral diseases but none has sparked fear as much as Zika because of its ability to harm the fetus.

Brazil has the highest incidence of Zika, but before last year, there were outbreaks in Africa, Southeast Asia and some Pacific Islands. This year, the virus has been found in mosquitoes in the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, as well as Puerto Rico, where 600 cases of Zika illness were reported, including the death of a 70-year-old Puerto Rican man. The U.S. has an Army base in Puerto Rico.

So far in the United States, reported cases have been travel-related with those infected traveling or returning to the U.S. Officials fear those cases could cause local spread of the virus if those infected are bitten by mosquitoes.

In Arkansas, the Health Department has stepped up surveillance and monitoring to detect mosquitoes with the virus by placing mosquito traps in various locations throughout the state. The Aedes Aegypti mosquito, commonly found in Arkansas and most of the southern United States, can harbor the Zika virus. Another mosquito, Aesdes albopictus, has been found farther north but are less likely to spread Zika or other mosquito-borne viruses, although experts warn that could change.

State Veterinarian Susan Weinstein hopes the data will help the Health Department to map the mosquitoes distribution and estimate their numbers. She said mosquito surveillance is a “haphazard patchwork” at city and county levels. She said Health Department officials have hopes of putting together a Zika task force.

In the meantime, county and city officials will rely on their usual mosquito-control measures including weekly spraying in some areas, including Jacksonville, and trying to educate the public on mosquito-control efforts at home, such as eliminating standing water where mosquitoes breed.

As Dr. Nathaniel Smith, state Health Department director, summed it up: “We wouldn’t be talking about it except for the birth defects.”