Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Zika virus has come to Ky. through travelers, and could spread at any time, but few people know or do much about it

This species of mosquito carries Zika.
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As temperatures and travel increase, so does the possible threat from the Zika virus, which can cause dangerous or even deadly birth defects, but many potential victims are uninformed and unprepared.

The best prevention for now may be vigilance by property owners against standing water where mosquitoes breed. Experts say those who travel to Zika-affected areas such as Florida and Texas should use insect repellents after they return to keep local mosquitoes from picking up the virus, which causes no symptoms in some people.

Nearly two out of five people who had traveled to an area affected by the Zika virus hadn't heard or seen any information about how to protect themselves or others from it, and even those who knew how to protect themselves didn't always do so, according to a recent poll.

A senior research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health presented the poll results at the 2017 Zika Conference in Lexington May 11. Dr. Gillian SteelFisher said the results emphasized the need for more preventive education, noting that many people don't realize that it "just takes one bite" to become infected.

A Kentucky study of 55 women of childbearing age who had traveled to Zika-affected areas found a similar need for more information, especially among Spanish-speaking women with less education under the age of 30, said Kristen Heitzinger, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fellow at the state Department of Public Health.

State Health Secretary Vickie Yates Brown Glisson called on the more than 400 conference attendees to go back to their communities and become "unwavering" in their efforts to get and deliver a simple, easy-to-understand message about Zika, its dangers and how to fight it.

Dr. Ardis Hoven (file photo)
State infectious disease specialist Dr. Ardis Hoven told the conference that local health departments will educate community leaders about the virus. For an 86-second audio clip of her remarks, via Stu Johnson of WEKU, click here.

"Our research tells us that not nearly enough pregnant women in particular, or those who are of the age to become pregnant, know about the Zika virus and what they should do to protect themselves and their unborn baby, or a potential unborn baby," Glisson said. "Overwhelming evidence has shown a link between Zika and dangerous birth defects that cause delayed development and sometimes even death in infants."

Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected mosquito, though it can also be transmitted through sex, and from a pregnant woman to her fetus. It circulates in many parts of the world where Kentuckians vacation, do mission trips or work.

So far, only Florida and Texas have had locally transmitted infections in the U.S., but Kentucky has the mosquito that is known to carry it. Click here to see the locations where Zika is a risk.

The virus can cause microcephaly, a condition where a baby's head is smaller than normal because the brain does not develop properly, and other birth defects in infants born to women infected during pregnancy.

It is also associated with adult Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks its nerves.

The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and red or burning eyes, though many who are infected have few if any symptoms, which can be so mild they go unrecognized.

There is no vaccine to prevent Zika, and no antiviral treatment for it.

According to the CDC, 5,000 cases of Zika have been identified in the U.S. and its territories including 37 in Kentucky and 1,367 in pregnant women. Among those women, 65 gave birth to babies with some type of Zika-related birth defect.

Of the 37 Kentucky cases, four were pregnant women whose children have had no complications, but are still being monitored. All the Kentucky cases were a result of travel to Zika-affected areas or through having sex with someone who had traveled to those areas.

The state health department has adopted the tag line "Dress, Drain and Defend -- to Fight the Bite Day and Night" to help Kentuckians remember to be vigilant about mosquito control:
  • Dress in light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants;
  • Drain all standing water where mosquitoes can breed, such as birdbaths, tires, buckets, gutters and anything, however small, that may act as a vessel for rainwater;
  • Defend against mosquitoes with approved insect repellents for outdoor activities at all times.
Luke Mathis, the environmental health supervisor at the Lexington Fayette County Health Department, said citizens must do their part to make sure Kentucky doesn't have a Zika outbreak.

"We could work ourselves to exhaustion, we could spend every dime of money, and it would have little effect on the mosquito population," Mathis said. Instead, he said it would be more effective to "have every homeowner check out their yard for a few minutes every couple of weeks and kick over those buckets or get rid of those tires."

"We need to begin changing people's attitude to make it socially unacceptable to breed mosquitoes in and around their property," Brown said. "It's going to take decades."

The state health department has advice for those considering travel to Zika-affected areas:
  • Pregnant women and their partners should not travel to Zika-affected areas;
  • Consult with a health-care provider prior to travel if you are pregnant or planning to conceive;
  • Couples who are planning to become pregnant should postpone conception for six months after travel to a Zika-affected area, and should discuss plans for pregnancy with their health provider
  • Follow steps to prevent mosquito bites: Dress and defend!
  • Wear a condom every time you have sex, including vaginal, oral and anal sex, or practice abstinence, while in a Zika-affected area.
Advice for those who have been to a Zika-affected area after they get home:
  • Women who have been exposed to the virus should use condoms or abstain from sex for at least eight weeks after symptom onset or last possible exposure.
  • Men who have been exposed to the virus should use condoms or abstain from sex for at least six months after symptom onset or last possible exposure.
  • Male travelers with pregnant partners should wear condoms throughout the pregnancy.
  • Travelers to Zika-affected areas who have symptoms within two weeks of their return to Kentucky should contact their health-care provider.
  • Travelers returning from Zika-affected areas should wear mosquito repellent for three weeks after returning, so they won't infect other mosquitoes that could bite others.
  • Remember that these precautions are necessary because many infected people have no symptoms.
Dr. Grayson Brown, professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky and director of the Public Health Entomology Laboratory, said many people are concerned about the safety of insecticides, but that they shouldn't be. He said "insecticide technology has changed" in the last 50 to 60 years and that products today are "nontoxic to humans and other vertebrates, but so powerful against mosquitoes."

"If we don't use them," Brown said, "the suffering is going to be absolutely enormous." He said South Florida officials averted a crisis last summer by using insecticides to kill Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Without that, there could have been "hundreds of thousands of cases, and thousands of micrcocephalic babies. . . . They avoided a serious, serious public-health crisis."

Kentucky sprays for mosquitoes each year, but Brown said the spray in mosquito trucks kills very few Zika-carrying mosquitoes, which require a different product that is hand-applied under bushes and brush.

For further information or to sign up for health alerts, visit or the CDC website at The UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment website also offers Zika updates.

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