Zika has been a growing concern in the United States after the first localized transmissions were discovered in Miami, Florida which led to the virus crossing state lines.
Soon after the transmissions were discovered in Miami, two instances in Texas were reported. An infant girl in Harris County,died from the virus and a man who returned from his vacation in Miami was diagnosed with Zika.
Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, professor and chair of Clinical Laboratory Science and Associate Dean for Research in the College of Health Professions, said Zika is spread primarily through the bite of an Aedes mosquito and the range of these mosquitos will keep the transmission of the virus, at first, in the lower half of the U.S.
“Eventually, it will move across the country,” Rohde said. “These mosquitos are aggressive daytime biters. They can also bite at night. And it has been shown that Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus.”
Rohde said infection during pregnancy has been related to birth defects and currently, there is no vaccine or medicine for Zika. The virus can be transmitted through mosquito bites, sex, blood transfusion, from mother to child and laboratory exposure.
“However, it’s very important to remember that most people will not experience symptoms at all,” Rohde said. “Only about one in five people will have any symptoms at all, and in those people, flu-like symptoms can last several days to a week.”
Rohde said in his professional opinion, once a vector-borne disease like Zika is introduced to a specific region, there is no stopping its spread or transmission. The smart thing to do at this point is to educate people about the virus and spread awareness on protection measures. Dr. Rohde also stressed the need for proper perspective during this latest public health threat.
According to the Hays County Health Department, to protect yourself from Zika you should:
- Drain all free standing water. Mosquitoes can lay eggs in as little as a bottle cap full of water.
- Dress in long sleeves and long pants to avoid exposure.
- Defend using EPA-approved repellents such as DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
In June 2016, Senate Democrats blocked a federal spending bill that would have provided $1.1 billion to fight back against Zika. In a political back-and-forth, both parties blamed each other for the blocking of the bill.
Lack of overall dedicated funding for public health is an issue, Rohde said. While people can be upset about Congress blocking the Zika Bill, the issue goes much deeper.
“Public health always gets a cut and we have knee jerk policy versus on-going, preventative policy,” Rohde said. “Prevention is cheaper in the long run rather than throwing money at any major or even minor outbreak or public issue in general.”
Prior to the localized transmission reports in the U.S., regulations on blood donations were made stricter especially for those who had traveled to Latin American countries infected with Zika.
Julie Vera, corporate communications and public relations strategist for South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, owned by BioBridge, said STBTC is fortunate because it was one of the first blood centers in the nation to start testing donations in July for Zika virus.
For STBTC, those who have traveled to Zika-affected areas such as Mexico, the Caribbean, South/Central America and now Miami, cannot donate blood for 28 days after their return to the U.S. Those who had sexual contact with someone who has traveled to a Zika-affected area are asked to postpone donation for 28 days as well.
The FDA requires donors to sign a consent form for their blood to be tested for Zika because the test is so new, Vera said. In the event of local transmission, blood donations could not be collected from donors who do not sign the Zika virus test consent form.
“We’re asking our donors to please consider giving consent,” Vera said. “It helps make the blood supply safer for everyone.”
Local transmission of the Zika virus has the potential to significantly impact the blood supply, Vera said.
“The blood center in the Miami-Dade area, for instance, was told by the FDA to stop collecting blood in the wake of the outbreak there,” Vera said. “However, STBTC expects to mitigate the effect on our blood supply because we are testing for Zika.”
Researchers are currently working on several things in the way of cures and/or prevention, Rohde said. Vaccines are being developed by a number of research groups which are showing promise. However, it can take years for vaccines to be tested properly and given approval.
Medical laboratories, public health and healthcare professionals are the backbone to serving us in times of an outbreak and in the times when all things are quiet, Rohde said. Everyone must support these professionals with ongoing, purposeful and eternal public health funding and personnel.
“Truly, prevention is worth a pound of cure. And so is education,” Rohde said.