Q&A: What you should know about Zika in Texas
According to the World Health Organization, Zika is no longer a global emergency. However, in South Texas, we now have the first case of Zika transmitted by mosquitoes locally. This is only the second state in the United States to report a case of local transmission of the disease. We sat down with Texas A&M experts to find out more about the implications of Zika in the Lone Star State.
Q: What are the details of the Texas cases?
A: The first reported locally transmitted case of Zika in Texas is a woman—who is not pregnant—living in Brownsville, Texas, in Cameron County. Health officials say the woman has not traveled to Mexico or any other country where Zika outbreaks have occurred. Experts believe that the most likely scenario is that someone who was infected in an area where Zika is widespread traveled to South Texas and was bitten by a mosquito, which later bit the woman, as additional disease tracking has not turned up additional cases of Zika that have been acquired locally. Lab tests have also revealed the virus is no longer in the woman’s blood and able to spread from her to mosquitoes that could go on to infect others. However, state and county health officials have begun trapping mosquitoes in the area to test for the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory recommending that pregnant women who live in other parts of the country consider avoiding travel to the Brownsville area.
Q: Will we see a widespread Zika outbreak in Texas?
A: Like Florida, Texas is likely to be affected by Zika due to the warm climate and because Texas is home to the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes that transmit the virus. Texas has 290 confirmed cases, but Cameron County saw the first locally transmitted cases by mosquitoes. Health officials don’t think Zika will become widespread because of the state’s experience with other mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue fever. The widespread use of screens and air conditioning in homes may help prevent a mass outbreak, however the spread of Zika could increase in the warmer months.
Q: How can I keep mosquitoes away from my home?
A: The EPA recommends these preventive measures that may keep mosquitoes from breeding around your home:
Remove Mosquito Habitats
- Eliminate standing water in rain gutters, old tires, buckets, plastic covers, toys or any other container where mosquitoes can breed. Remember that a container as small as a bottle cap may have enough water to harbor mosquito larvae.
- Empty and change the water in bird baths, fountains, wading pools, rain barrels and potted plant trays at least once a week to destroy potential mosquito habitats.
- Drain or fill temporary pools of water with dirt.
- Keep swimming pool water treated and circulating.
Use Structural Barriers
- Cover all gaps in walls, doors and windows to prevent mosquitoes from entering.
- Make sure window and door screens are in good working order.
- Completely cover baby carriers and beds with netting.
Avoid Getting Bit
- Wear insect repellents with either 25 percent DEET or 20 percent Picardin.
- Keep mosquitoes away from exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks.
- Tuck shirts into pants and pants into socks to cover gaps in your clothing where mosquitoes can get to your skin.
- Stay indoors at sunrise, sunset and early in the evening when mosquitoes are most active.
Q: How will winter affect mosquito ecology?
A: Mosquitoes hibernate. They are cold-blooded and prefer warmer temperatures, and if they lay their eggs in cold water, the eggs can freeze and die. If temperatures fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, mosquitoes will shut down for the winter and try to find a warm environment where they can wait for warmer weather. It’s still best to make sure that there are no areas where water can accumulate, as mosquito eggs can survive in a very small amount of water, and some do manage to survive, even in cold temperatures.
Q: What are the symptoms of Zika?
A: Most people who contract Zika are asymptomatic or only have very mild symptoms. Common symptoms of Zika include fever, skin rash, red eyes and joint pain. Some patients report muscle pain, general malaise, headache and vomiting. Symptoms typically last between two and seven days. Complications are rare, but some cases require hospitalization for supportive care.
Q: Who is at risk?
A: Everyone who hasn’t had the virus is potentially at risk. For pregnant women, contracting the virus represents a risk to her unborn baby. Researchers think Zika is behind the rise in miscarriages and microcephaly, a birth defect in which the infant has an unusually small head and abnormal brain development. For everyone else, the biggest potential complication is Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the body’s own nerve cells, causing problems with muscle coordination and breathing. It can be fatal in rare cases, especially in situations without high-quality intensive care. However, all of these complications remain rare.
Q: What should I do if I think I might be infected with Zika virus?
A: To prevent others from getting sick, it is especially important to keep any mosquitoes from biting you and transmitting the disease to other people. Get plenty of rest and drink fluids to prevent dehydration. You should also contact your health care provider, especially if you are pregnant, to discuss your concerns. The Texas Department of State Health Services recommends testing for anyone with symptoms and all pregnant women in six Texas counties: Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata.