Mosquito season heightens Zika threat in Georgia

With so much attention focused on the Zika’s rampage through the southern Americas, plenty of Georgians may not be worried about the mosquito-borne infection.

But rising temperatures are signaling the imminent start of mosquito season and that could make the virus - linked to serious birth defects - a greater threat here at home.

That is why dozens of researchers, doctors and federal, state and local public health officials will gather for a Zika Action Plan Summit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as Homeland Security will be on hand to help advise state and local municipalities on their preparedness for a possible outbreak.

To date, the only Zika cases in Georgia have been travel-related; nine people who visited areas with active Zika outbreaks were bitten while there by one of two types of mosquitoes carrying the virus. Both of those mosquito strains are present throughout the South and experts say Georgia will be one of the states most likely to have moderate to high levels of the mosquitoes that cause the infection. CDC officials fear it’s only a matter of time before the virus becomes mosquito-borne in the contiguous 48 states.

For women who might be or become pregnant and their male sexual partners, an infection could result in devastating pregnancy outcomes, from miscarriages to birth defects. And while the insects are the primary means of transmission, Zika has been proven to be sexually transmitted through semen. Contact with the virus at any stage of a pregnancy, from conception to delivery, presents a danger that is “unprecedented,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re not aware of any previous case of a mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects,” said Frieden.

“Toss Out Any Kind of Standing Water”

The best line of defense against Zika this summer might simply be individual action; bug repellent, long sleeves, window screens and air conditioning, officials said. And get rid of standing water. Already, the state is working with counties to promote a “Tip ‘n Toss” campaign aimed at individuals and business to get them to remove any standing water on their property. Abandoned tires, bird baths, gutters, pet water bowls, truck beds, children’s toys, lawn furniture, wheel barrels, saucers underneath potted plants can be breeding grounds for the mosquito, which prefers to lay their eggs in shaded or dark colored places. They can become adults in less than a week.

“There are places in the state that are starting to see mosquitoes,” said Nancy Nydam, spokesperson for the state health department. “When it rains, go toss out any kind of standing water in your yard. Ground cover like English ivy, even magnolia leaves can hold enough water. They can breed in something as small as a bottle cap.”

The state can push abatement campaigns but it’s up to the counties to coordinate mosquito control programs. Their efforts vary greatly.

Chatham, Glynn, and Liberty counties along Georgia’s coast and Fulton County use a combination of spraying and larvicide pellets to control mosquitoes. DeKalb County puts pellets with the active insecticide s-methoprene, in sewer catch basins, which are prolific breeding grounds, said Susan Loeffler, director of Emergency Management Services for DeKalb County. The pellets don’t kill the mosquitoes, but prevents them from reaching full adulthood.

“We just want people to be a little more mosquito aware this year,” Loeffler said.

Fulton County relies primarily on larvicides, dropping them from May through October into at least 12,000 catch basins and storm drains around the county, Ellis Jones, Fulton County Environmental Health deputy director said. The larvicides have also been used to fight West Nile virus. The county also does targeted spraying with back-pack sprayers to kill adult mosquitoes. It has a contingency plan to use truck sprayers as well, Ellis wrote.

Spraying for mosquitoes from a truck has limited efficacy. The insecticides travel only 300 feet and are blocked by homes and buildings so they don’t travel into back yards or through dense vegetation where mosquitoes are likely to breed, said Nydam and Loeffler.

Nine full-time coordinators will work throughout the state to help help trap, collect and identify mosquitoes. They’ll also coordinate mosquito control activities with existing local.

No Vaccine and No Cure

Already Zika has become a pandemic in South and Central America and swaths of the Caribbean. The outbreak is growing with frightening speed in the U.S. territory, and popular vacation spot, of Puerto Rico. As of last week the island has had 261 known cases of the virus, most of them acquired through mosquito bites. CDC researchers in Puerto Rico have all but suspended their work on other mosquito-borne viruses on the island and turned their full focus to Zika. They are pushing for preventive measures such as installing window screens in homes that lack them and issuing prevention packages which include insect repellent and condoms. The goal is to save the island from an explosion of Zika-related birth defects of the sort that have plagued Brazil, the epicenter of the current outbreak. It’s a disease without vaccine or cure.

One of the most worrisome details: A bite from one of those mosquitoes might go unnoticed. The majority of people bitten by a mosquito carrying Zika show no symptoms of infection and suffer little to no long-term health consequences.

As early as April, Savannah could begin seeing low levels of the Aedes aegypti, the tropical mosquito most likely to carry the virus, according to a study released this month in the scientific journal Public Library of Science. By May, Atlanta and Augusta will likely have low levels of the mosquito. But by July those levels will have risen to moderate and high, researchers said. They will be at their highest along the coasts from Texas to Florida to Georgia to South Carolina. The other mosquito which can carry Zika is Aedes albopictus, which is present in more states but has a lower likelihood of carrying the virus, according to the CDC.

All of this has caused deep concern among health officials who have been racing around the clock to figure out how Zika causes such devastating defects as microcephaly, inwhich fetuses develop abnormally small heads, undersized brains and a host of cognitive, visual and hearing impediments. The virus also appears to be linked to the potentially lethal auto-immune disorder, Guillain-Barre’ Syndrome.

While the federal health agency has escalated its travel warnings and safe-sex recommendations regarding Zika, there is still the question of home-front preparedness. The Obama administration has asked Congress for $1.8 billion to battle the virus, and a bulk of the money would go to CDC research. Congress hasn’t acted on the request.

Epidemiologists and representatives of Georgia’s Department of Public Health will attend the CDC conference. Already the health department sent letters this month to the Georgia Board of Regents, state Board of education and area travel agents expressing concern over the virus’ prevalence in popular vacation spots and spring break destinations.

“I fully understand that travel to these areas will continue, but what I ask is that you advise your clients to protect themselves from mosquito bites when they are traveling and after returning home to prevent the spread of Zika virus,” wrote Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia public health commissioner and an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Because the virus remains in the blood for days after symptoms go away, the CDC recommended last week that people who travel to Zika-regions wear mosquito repellent for three weeks after returning home to the U.S.

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