The Zika virus, a mosquito-transmitted illness that is reported to be spreading quickly in Latin American countries, is prompting Pettis County Health Center Administrator JoAnn Martin to provide a caution to those wanting to travel to those areas, especially women who are pregnant or plan to be in the near future.
On Thursday, Martin said in the last communicable disease conference call she received Missouri has no known cases of the virus at present.
“But things change quickly,” she added.
Martin said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, is “very concerned” the Zika virus could become a pandemic, which means it could occur over a wide geographical area and affect a large number of people.
“Because it is spreading rapidly,” Martin added. “The area in which they are identifying the mosquito that carries the virus is a large area. That’s why they are very concerned about it becoming a serious health issue.”
The disease is spread by mosquitoes, not from person-to-person contact through coughing or sneezing, but it’s unknown if mosquitoes in Pettis County are a concern.
“We obviously have a lot of mosquitoes, but we don’t do mosquito traffic here in Pettis County so I can’t tell you specifically if we have the mosquito that carries the virus,” Martin said.
“The biggest concern is that we get a collection of people who have the virus that are then bitten by a mosquito that can carry the virus,” she added. “Then it is spread to other people. The issue is, if you only have one person with the disease and a mosquito bites that person and spreads it to anther person, that risk is much lower than if you have 100 people with the disease. Then you have 100 times more of a chance that a mosquito is going to bite someone and spread the disease.”
On Thursday, there were 24 Zika-affected countries listed on the CDC’s website, including Mexico, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
“It’s really important that people check the CDC’s website for travel alerts,” Martin said. “Because the travel alerts will tell where the disease is being identified and it changes every day.”
The Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands were added to the list Thursday.
“Unfortunately they are countries where many cold North Americans go in the winter time,” she added. “The very best protection is to not get bitten by a mosquito.”
Martin said it is “challenging” but there are precautions one can take to prevent mosquito bites while traveling. One would use the same precaution that is used for protection against West Nile virus in the U.S. by using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves, and to limit outside exposure.
“The good news, in the continental United States, we’ve not reported any spread of the disease from person-to-person,” she added. “All the cases that have been identified have been called ‘imported,’ meaning people got the disease when they were out of the country.”
Martin said it’s very important if one has been out of the country and then they develop symptoms to notify their health care provider. Symptoms include fever, rash and joint pain.
“They need to tell their health care provider that they have traveled outside of the country,” she said. “That’s a really important message. Hopefully people have heard the news and are becoming more aware.”
She said the concern in the U.S. is the development of “pockets” across the country where there are many people with the disease. This would give the virus a better chance to easily spread to other areas.
“We don’t have mosquitoes year-round, like they do in the more tropical climates,” Martin said.
She added that Pettis County is on the edge of the map for the Aedes species of mosquito that spreads the disease.
“… We can’t always say we’re never going to have a particular risk,” she said.
Women who are pregnant or plan to be need to take special caution due to the possibility of the disease causing their babies to be born with microcephaly. Microcephaly is a birth defect where the baby’s brain and skull stops growing before birth.
“Women who are pregnant or think they may be pregnant or think they may become pregnant shortly should seriously consider their travel plans to those areas that are affected and discuss that with their doctor,” Martin said. “This (disease) is getting a lot of attention because of the problems it’s causing for the babies.”
Martin said the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is keeping the local public health department and health care providers updated on the latest information from the CDC.
For more information on the Zika virus, call the PCHC at 827-1130 or visit www.cdc.gov.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.