When viral outbreaks occur, local health departments have to combat both the disease itself and any level of panic it might trigger.
Just this week, the World Health Organization declared it a global public health emergency and Texas officials confirmed the first case that was acquired in the U.S. As fears of the Zika virus reach a fever pitch, local health agencies across the country are getting ready to ramp up their education and communication programs to curb any public anxiety, while also promoting safety and good health.
"This is going to be a big challenge, but it’s also too early to predict anything," cautioned Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "We don’t want to scare people into doing or thinking about things that are unnecessary."
Carried by mosquitoes, the Zika virus started spreading extensively in South and Central America last year. Prior to 2015, Zika had been found in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. The virus is thought to be mild, although it has been linked to serious birth defects such as microcephaly (shrunken head and brain) if contracted while pregnant.
Some three dozen Americans have contracted it while traveling abroad in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that a patient in Dallas was believed to have contracted the disease through sexual transmission. It was the first case of the Zika virus being contracted in the U.S., demonstrating just how quickly the situation can change -- and the importance of quick communication from health departments.
On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a health emergency in four counties. Florida has seen nine cases of the disease, all believed to have been contracted during overseas travel. Scott said the state must be prepared for the possibility of the virus spreading in Florida through mosquito bites.
According to experts, proactive messaging on the local level has helped prevent deadly epidemics from spreading throughout the country in recent years.
"We saw this with Ebola," said Oscar Alleyne, senior advisor for public health programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. "As things change, public health departments have to be able to collect new, medically-accurate information and disseminate it as quickly as possible."
If a person contracts the Zika virus, local health officials will likely ask them to stay home. If mosquitoes are present in or around the dwelling, teams will come out to spray. "The thing you don't want to have happen is an imported case or two leading to infected mosquitoes that spread in town," said Bob England, director of public health in Maricopa County, Ariz.
Some areas in the U.S. with mild climates already have experience coping with other mosquito-borne illnesses, and it's not yet clear how much extra effort Zika will demand.
"On the ground, we’re not going to treat this much differently than chikungunya, another mosquito-transmitted virus," said Susan Weinstein, state public health veterinarian at the Arkansas Department of Health, which has confirmed at least one case in the state. "We do know that the breeds of mosquitoes carrying Zika tend to breed closer to homes, so I don’t know how helpful our normal spray down of roads and public areas will be," she said.
In Charleston County, S.C., which is home to more than 50 breeds of mosquitoes, mosquito patrols are accustomed to making house calls. Ed Harne, a taxonomist with the county's mosquito control, said Zika is definitely on the county's radar, but that it's been too cool to do much about it because adult mosquitoes go into a sort of hibernation once the temperature consistently dips below 50 degrees, as it's been lately.
While waiting for warmer weather, county officials are gearing up for their annual push to promote citizen awareness. During the last week of February, the mosquito control team goes door to door in about a dozen neighborhoods to educate residents about how to protect themselves and their properties from mosquitoes.
"During any given year, we’ll knock on about two thousand doors," said Harne. "We give them literature on how to curb breeding, and if they give us permission, we’ll survey their property and give them personalized advice."
In Charleston County and elsewhere, local officials stress that the most important thing for the public is to think about some basic mosquito protections as it gets warmer. For example:
- Avoid allowing standing water to collect in places such as the tarp on a boat.
- Wear mosquito repellent.
- After traveling to a country with a high rate of Zika infection, continue to wear mosquito repellent for a week or so after returning home.
The outbreak of new diseases is always unnerving. But if people use common sense and local agencies are successful at mosquito abatement, Zika shouldn't present too grave a danger in the U.S.
"If everyone follows these guidelines," said Weinstein, "it’ll be easy to get Zika to die down in the next few months."