Mississippi's almost year-round mosquito population makes it more vulnerable to illnesses such as the Zika virus that's becoming rampant in Brazil and some other South and Central American countries, a University of Mississippi Medical Center infectious diseases specialist says.
“Unfortunately, this is spread by mosquitos, and we have the vector for that here,” said Dr. Skip Nolan, professor of infectious diseases and head of the Medical Center's Division of Infectious Diseases. “We likely have the Aedes mosquitos that can transmit the virus.”
The Zika virus usually causes either no symptoms, or mild effects such as a rash, low fever or joint pains; 80 percent of people infected don't know it. But in pregnant women or those attempting to become pregnant, it can be catastrophic for their babies. It's been linked to a spike in the number of babies in Brazil born with a condition called microcephaly, characterized by an underdeveloped brain and tiny head, which causes severe neurological issues and sometimes death.
However, there's no need to panic about the virus that's making national and international headlines, say Nolan and Dr. Michelle Owens, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a maternal-fetal specialist. There are no confirmed deaths from the Zika virus in this country or internationally. It's popped up in some Central and South American countries, and parts of the Caribbean.
"There's still a lot we don't know, so we have to be very careful about making any absolute predictions," Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was quoted as saying by National Public Radio. In a briefing for reporters, NPR reported, Fauci added that "we still feel it's unlikely ... we'll see wide-scale outbreaks."
Even so, NPR reported, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control are intensifying efforts to combat Zika. “Right now, the concern is that it could spread to Mississippi and be a threat to pregnant women,” Nolan said.
There's not a great likelihood that Mississippi would have an actual outbreak, Owens said. “The virus does not live in all mosquitos, but rather in certain types,” she said. “However, there is a possibility because of our diverse population and travel that we might see patients who have been in an area where the virus is more common.”
Dr. Paul Byers, deputy state epidemiologist at the Mississippi Department of Health, said there have been no travel-associated cases in the state, “but we are working with local providers to identify any possible cases.
“Currently, only those Mississippians who travel to countries where there is ongoing local transmission are at risk for infection,” Byers said.
The chief of the World Health Organization called a special session on Thursday to express concern that the virus is “spreading explosively.” The Centers for Disease Control says Zika is expanding mostly in Central and South America, but has a presence in more than 20 countries overall.
A World Health Organization scientist said Thursday that 3 million to 4 million cases of Zika infection are possible in the Americas over the next year. World Health Organization leaders will hold an emergency meeting today to discuss whether the outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.
The Zika virus spreads when someone is bitten by an infected mosquito, Nolan said. That person can then have the infection, and if they are bitten by a mosquito and the mosquito becomes infected, it can pass it on by biting another person.
In Mississippi, Nolan says, the threat of any mosquito-borne illness, including the West Nile virus, can start in your own backyard, where mosquitos breed in very small amounts of water. If someone throws a can in your backyard and it rains, mosquitos can breed in that water. They can breed in the dish bottom of a flower pot after a rain.
“You need to dump the water out of containers and keep them dry,” Nolan said. “Make sure, the best you can, that mosquitos are not breeding where you are.” Use all the typical precautions you'd use to avoid bites when traveling abroad, such as repellents with DEET or wearing long sleeves during late afternoon and early evening in the summer, he said.
UMMC's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology plans to educate front-line staff and providers “to be aware of what to look for and to develop an action plan,” Owens said. “It's really more about being able to heighten awareness and allay the public's fears; we want to make sure patients and providers get appropriate information.”
She and the Department of Health would advise pregnant patients considering travel to countries with Zika cases to postpone the trip if possible, and if they cannot, to educate themselves on precautions they should take to avoid being bitten.
The Mississippi Department of Health has placed fresh information on the Zika virus on its home page, http://www.msdh.state.ms.us/, including a map of affected countries. The information includes travel precautions, prevention and advice for pregnant women.
The medical community has known about the Zika virus since 1947, but “if a disease is not a major issue in spreading and killing people, there's not much interest in investigating it,” Nolan said. “A month ago, Zika was a non-entity.”
Scientists could begin as early as this year a human study of a Zika virus vaccine, U.S. health officials said Thursday, but a vaccine could be years in the making.
Unlike Brazil and many Central and South American countries, “we have good public health, and we can contain it,” Nolan said. “The most important thing is for physicians to recognize potential cases, and to notify the Health Department so that it can investigate and try to prevent the disease from spreading.”