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NC hiring entomologists to prepare defense against Zika virus

Zika virus is primarily spread through mosquitoes.
Zika virus is primarily spread through mosquitoes. Photo courtesy Fotolia/TNS

The state Department of Health and Human Services is hiring two medical entomologists whose first order of business will be to determine where two types of mosquitoes capable of transmitting the Zika virus live in North Carolina.

The move restores some of the capabilities the state lost when it eliminated a Public Health Pest Management program several years ago. State officials say it’s still not clear the Zika virus will ever make it to North Carolina, but they understand the public’s concern and want to be ready if the virus begins to be transmitted by mosquitoes in the United States.

“We are preparing our response, because we certainly understand that a virus that causes birth defects is a very different entity,” said Randall Williams, the state health director. “In an abundance of caution, we’re going to go ahead and gear up to do the normal kind of abatement programs.”

Only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika actually gets sick, and then the symptoms most commonly resemble the flu, including fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis or red eyes. It’s only because the virus has been associated with a birth defect known as microcephaly that world health officials have raised an alarm. Microcephaly is characterized by smaller heads and poorer mental functioning in babies and has only been associated with Zika in Brazil and possibly French Polynesia.

So far, the only Zika cases found in the United States are among people who contracted the virus out of the country or, in a handful of cases, had sex with someone who did.

The mosquito that transmits the disease, Aedes aegypti, is very common in tropical countries and was once found in North Carolina before it was displaced by the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus. Both mosquitoes also transmit other diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

We hope to begin as soon as possible so we can begin to characterize what species are in North Carolina and in what abundance.

Carl Williams, state public health veterinarian

The new state entomologists will work with others at state universities to begin mapping where the two species of mosquitoes are found, said Carl Williams, the state public health veterinarian. The last comprehensive survey for the mosquitoes was done in 1994, Williams said.

“We hope to begin as soon as possible so we can begin to characterize what species are in North Carolina and in what abundance,” Williams said.

Both species of Aedes mosquitoes are active during the day and breed in standing water that gathers in containers such as flower pots or old tires. The state’s survey will consist of looking for the mosquito larvae in containers in key areas, particularly in southern counties and in urban areas where the mosquitoes are thought to live.

The state will not test the mosquitoes for Zika. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that looking for Zika in mosquitoes may have limited value, Carl Williams said, and that public health efforts should focus on identifying where the mosquitoes are, eliminating their breeding grounds and educating people about how to avoid mosquito bites.

If Zika does spread into North Carolina’s mosquito populations, it’s not likely to take the state by surprise, both Carl and Randall Williams say. They note that if and when the virus moves into the United States, it will likely be in states such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas first, and North Carolina will look to learn how those states handle it.

The hiring of two medical entomologists is an important step, according to the N.C. Mosquito and Vector Control Association. Last month, the association publicly lamented the loss in 2011 of the state Public Health Pest Management program that once had a group of entomologists to study pest-borne diseases and advise state and local governments on how to combat them.

The association also called on the state to restore some of the funding it once provided to local mosquito-control programs. Controlling mosquitoes in North Carolina has traditionally been a local responsibility, resulting in active programs in some areas and none in others.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is working to determine how many active local mosquito control districts there are in North Carolina. Carl Williams said there were once close to 100 local programs in the state after the West Nile virus appeared in the United States in 1999.

A lack of urgency about mosquito-borne disease helped allow the state to eliminate the Public Health Pest Management program and cut support for local programs. The focus on Zika has brought some of that urgency back.

“That was probably when mosquito management programs were at their most robust,” Williams said. “Many of those have simply faded away, and we really don’t know what persists.”

A lack of urgency about mosquito-borne disease helped allow the state to eliminate the Public Health Pest Management program and cut support for local programs. The focus on Zika has brought some of that urgency back.

“In public health, we always match resources with our needs,” said Randall Williams, the health director. “And I think in this case, clearly a virus that causes birth defects that is emerging and that is vector-borne is clearly a need.”

Williams said the state hopes the two medical entomologist positions will be permanent to help guard against other pest-borne diseases in the future. More than 750 tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever were reported in North Carolina in 2014, on top of dozens of diseases spread by mosquitoes, such as West Nile, Eastern equine encephalitis and LaCrosse encephalitis.

Rep. John Faircloth of High Point, chairman of the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee, says he’s satisfied the state will be prepared when and if the Zika virus shows up in North Carolina. State health officials appeared before Faircloth’s committee last month to report on their preparations for Zika.

“Our understanding is they are monitoring the situation, and if mosquito bites start causing a problem with this particular virus, they are prepared to recommend some course of action,” Faircloth said. “But we don’t want to go back to some major fogging program like we had in the past. We want to find a proper, safe and inexpensive way to react if and when the problem comes up here.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

Where is Zika?

In addition to parts of Africa and Asia, Zika virus is found in Mexico and several countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America. It has not been found in the continental United States, but is present in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As of Feb. 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Zika infections in 25 states, including North Carolina, all among people who contracted the virus in other countries.

For more information, go to www.cdc.gov/zika

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