Prevention, not panic, is the best defense against Zika

Photo by James Gathany, USCDCP

Let’s clear something up right away about the Zika virus: Mosquitos are the real and present problem, not sexual encounters.

For us in the United States right now, prevention is key. Panic is not. There is a big difference.

Earlier this week, Dallas health officials did indeed confirm a sexually transmitted case of the virus, which is not fatal and usually leaves the body after a week. Certainly, this was newsworthy in the larger context of the other seven confirmed, travel-acquired cases of Zika in the Houston area. But it didn’t merit the hint of hysteria found in some news and social media reports.

There are three known cases — ever — of Zika being transmitted sexually. Compare that to the 500,000 cases of the virus in Brazil alone, according to that country’s Health Ministry, transmitted through mosquitos. The spotlight should remain on the bites of the Aedes mosquito, which has precipitated an epidemic in 30 countries, mostly in Central and South America. The World Health Organization declared Zika and its potential for causing birth defects a global health emergency with the potential of infecting up to four million people, they estimate, by the end of the year.

For us in the United States right now, prevention is key. Panic is not. There is a big difference.

As one of the nation’s largest Federally Qualified Health Centers, Legacy Community Health in Houston sees about 300 pregnant women a day, some of whom travel to the Zika-affected countries in Central and South America. As a preventative measure, we are advising our prenatal patients not to travel to this region. Health authorities suspect that Zika is linked to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with small heads. And we know the Houston cases involved returning travelers from Latin America.

In addition, at all of our clinics where OB services are offered we are providing clinical screening by asking a pregnant patient’s travel history and if she is experiencing Zika symptoms, including fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes. (Most patients don’t have symptoms, however.)

Other industries are taking precautionary measures, too. Airlines are reassigning pregnant crew members to routes that don’t fly to the affected countries and refunding pregnant passengers were booked on flights to Latin America or the Caribbean.

Health officials have made clear the spread of Zika will remain limited in the United States, even though we likely will hear of new confirmed cases in the coming days or months. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote earlier this week that “from the information we know now, widespread transmission in the contiguous United States appears to be unlikely.” Plus, the United States has relatively strong mosquito prevention measures.

That doesn’t mean those of us who live in mosquito havens such as Houston should be complacent as we get into the warmer months. A surefire prevention method, no matter where the ongoing investigation into Zika virus leads, is using insect repellant with DEET, wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and staying in air-conditioned spaces.

Such a dull-sounding prescription really is the magic bullet to avoiding mosquito bites — and Zika.

Disclosure: Legacy Community Health has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Ann Barnes

Chief medical officer, Legacy Community Health