At the March 7 Board of Commissioners’ meeting, Dr. Sheila Davies, director of the Dare County Public Health Division, gave an update on the Zika virus – the most recent mosquito-related virus to garner international attention.
The update was a timely one, considering that the warm weather on Hatteras Island has seemingly brought with it the first batch of mosquitoes and mosquito bite — locals have been swatting and scratching since early this week.
The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne emerging arbovirus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947, and which is related to dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and the West Nile virus. Since 2007, the world has seen Zika outbreaks in Gabon, Micronesia, and French Polynesia, and since 2015, there have been endemic transmissions in Central and South America.
And because the virus has traveled to continents close to home, it’s projected that North America will see an uptick of Zika virus cases in the months and years to come.
The Zika virus is transmitted through mosquitoes, but may also be transmitted from ticks and fleas, which as any local will tell you, have been particularly bad this year.
Symptoms like headache, fever, and joint or muscle pain can appear within two to seven days of being infected and are “as uncomfortable as the flu,” according to Davies, although only one in five people may actually experience symptoms once they have contracted the virus.
The good news is that for the most part, contracting the Zika virus is not life-threatening, but the big concern is the impact on pregnant women. However, the virus can cause birth defects in children, which is what brought it into the public eye.
According to Davies, between 2015 and 2016, there were 4,750 cases of microcephaly birth defects in Brazil, whereas in 2014 there were just 150 cases. Microcephaly is condition in which a baby’s head is significantly smaller than normal.
“That huge jump is what prompted the World Health Organization and the CDC to say ‘We need to get more information out there for people, and really focus on the prevention,’” said Davies at the meeting.
The World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” in response on Feb. 1, and in the United States, President Obama called for a national response – including tests, vaccines, treatments, and increased outreach – on Jan. 27. The first U.S. case in Dallas County, Texas, was reported just a week later on Feb. 2, which was reportedly sexually transmitted by a traveler who has been to Venezuela.
So far, 107 cases of the Zika virus have been identified in the United States, which includes five in North Carolina — a relatively small number when compared to other countries across the globe. In addition, all of the cases in North Carolina were travel-related, which means that there were no cases that originated with a local mosquito bite.
In Dare County and North Carolina, the preparation for the Zika virus has been similar to the preparation for the potential Ebola virus outbreak. Statewide conference calls and webinars with state partners were held, news releases were sent to media outlets, and information was sent to heath care providers to ensure the public and the instrumental parties involved were all on the same page.
Locally, the ongoing Dare County response includes testing at the local health department –Davies noted that several pregnant women have already come in to be tested — communication with DHHS boards and Dare BOC, public health staff preparedness, and communication with area providers and stakeholders.
For the public, there is now a website set up at http://darenc.com/zika/, where locals and visitors can garner a wealth of data on the virus – from facts to prevention steps – and keep up-to-date on any ongoing information on the virus as it is acquired.
The most important factor in heading off the virus is prevention, and at the meeting, Davies outlined how travelers can best protect themselves — and their communities — from contracting Zika and bringing it home.
While traveling, visitors should use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, and treat clothes with insecticide as needed. Accommodations in other countries where the virus has been prevalent should have door or window screens, and/or air conditioners, to prevent mosquitoes from entering.
For two weeks after travelers return, they should also look out for symptoms of Zika, such as fever, joint, muscle or eye pain, and/or a rash, and should contact a doctor immediately if any of these symptoms occur.
And though the virus is still being studied, research shows that it can be sexually transmitted, so travelers will want to use protection abroad and/or when they return home.
Davies also noted that Dare County has a very robust mosquito population, and encouraged the public to take steps in reducing the number of mosquitoes close to home. These steps include:
Locals and visitors should note that the Zika virus is not the biggest mosquito-related threat in the county – that honor goes to the West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis, historically – but it’s still something to pay attention to and be aware of, especially for pregnant women.
And while the U.S. has yet to see an outbreak of the Zika virus, Dare County residents who are aware and take steps to ward off the local mosquitoes will be a step ahead of the game in case the number of state-side cases rise.