Every year, as summer nears, public health officials advise residents to reduce the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses by eliminating standing water. This year, that message is even more important as the outbreak of Zika virus moves steadily from South America to the United States.
In some people, the Zika virus brings only mild flu-like symptoms. In others, it can lead to an autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome. And in pregnant women, the virus has been related to an increase in babies born with microcephaly, which causes unusually small heads and damaged brains.
To prepare for mosquito season, Tim Dutcher, Mecklenburg County’s environmental health supervisor, and County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia, discussed the Zika threat at a news conference Monday:
Q. How is the virus spread?
Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. This type of mosquito is not commonly found in North Carolina; the last time it was reported in Mecklenburg was more than 20 years ago, Dutcher said.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the same insects that spread dengue and chikungunya virus.
Another mosquito type, Aedes albopictus, is common to North Carolina but less commonly carries the Zika virus.
So Mecklenburg health officials have hired extra employees this year to help with mosquito control. They will respond to citizen complaints about standing water and also survey more than 1,300 sites that have been identified as having significant mosquito breeding activity. If mosquito larvae are present, the water will be treated with a larvicide to kill them before they hatch.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time doing surveys through people’s yards,” Dutcher said.
Q. How can you reduce mosquito risk?
Get rid of standing water in gutters, bird baths, flower pots and other receptacles where mosquitoes lay their eggs.
As an experiment, Dutcher filled a bucket with water and set it in his back yard for the last couple weeks. On Monday, he was able to show the result – lots of squiggly, worm-like larvae.
“My main message is ‘Tip and Toss,’ ” Dutcher said. He advised people to walk through their yards once a week to find standing water.
If bird baths and other receptacles are too big to tip, he suggested buying “mosquito dunks” or “mosquito doughnuts” at the local hardware store. These items contain bacteria that inhibit mosquito growth. They last about 30 days and are not harmful to birds and animals, he said.
Q. What about other precautions?
“Fight the bite,” Dutcher said, by wearing DEET or some other type of mosquito repellent. Follow the package directions, and don’t forget to put it on kids older than 2 months.
Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing, including long sleeves and long pants, when spending time outdoors.
Q. Have there been Zika cases in Mecklenburg?
Two Mecklenburg residents have developed Zika virus infection while traveling out of state, Plescia said.
To transmit the virus, a person has to have the active infection and be bitten by a mosquito which then transmits the virus by biting someone else. The infection can also be transmitted sexually. Zika virus has also been found in other bodily fluids including saliva and urine, but it is unknown whether the virus can spread through these routes.
So far, the United State has reported 503 travel-related cases of Zika virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None have been locally acquired within the continental U.S. border. North Carolina has reported 11 travel-related cases. South Carolina has reported only one.
Q. What can we expect this summer?
“We don’t know if the mosquito-borne disease will even start to develop in the United States this year,” Plescia said.
“The thought is, if it does, we’re more likely to see it in southern states like Florida and Texas (where) they have (Aedes) aegypti mosquitoes.…Probably it’s not going to get this far north (to North Carolina) this summer. But we’re preparing as if it would.”