Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Where does it come from and who's at risk?

The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, and at last count, more than 80 cases of the Zika virus have been reported in the United States. All of these cases involve patients who had entered the United States from countries with known Zika outbreaks. However, there has been a disturbing new development in the virus transmission. The Centers for Disease Control is currently investigating fourteen reports of sexual transmission of Zika to women, including to pregnant women. This development, which represents about 15% of the reported cases in the United States, has major implications for controlling the virus. There is now compelling evidence that the transmission of the virus is not limited to the bites of particular mosquitoes found in certain areas with warmer climates, primarily tropical and sub-tropical location such as Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Sexual transmission is a likely secondary route for women to contract the virus. Health officials are still trying to determine how frequently Zika can be transmitted by sex and how long the virus can stay in semen. These are urgent questions that need to be answered considering that the annual number of visitors from Central and South America number in the millions.

Hawaii has already declared a state of emergency over the Zika virus and is in the midst of a dengue fever outbreak, another virus that is carried by the same mosquito species.  Sadly, in January, Hawaii had the first reported case of a baby born with brain damage linked to the virus whose mother had lived in Brazil. In May 2015, Brazil reported the first cases in the Americas, and the virus has since spread to other areas in South and Central America and the Caribbean. In Latin American countries, where Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, Pope Francis has indicated that the Church is prepared to condone artificial contraception in response to the birth abnormalities caused by the virus.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus is spreading explosively. As many as four million people could become infected over the next year. The virus has been declared an international public health emergency because of its rapid spread and the threat that it poses to pregnant women. The Zika virus is linked to various birth abnormalities, the most significant of which is microcephaly, a congenital birth defect associated with incomplete brain development. Microcephaly can kill infants or cause lifelong disability. The infection has been blamed for thousands of babies born with underdeveloped brains. Brazil is facing an unprecedented number of microcephaly cases. To emphasize, the health concern focus over Zika is with pregnant women who are infected with the virus because of the associated birth defects. For most people, Zika is a relatively mild virus that causes rashes, red eyes, and joint pain. Many people exhibit no symptoms at all.

Are we at risk of the Zika virus here in NJ?

The first case of the Zika Virus in New Jersey hit the news in January when a Colombian woman visiting Bergen County was confirmed to have the Zika virus. Zika virus is spread through mosquito bites, specifically, infected Aedes genus mosquitoes. These are the same mosquito species that carry dengue fever and chikungunya. While Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the primary carriers, Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, also known as the Asian tiger mosquito, might also be transmitting the virus. Since Asian tiger mosquitoes are plentiful here in New Jersey, there is a risk of local Zika virus transmission in the future. According to Dina Fonsesca, an entomologist, and director of the Invasive and Emerging Disease Vectors Laboratory at Rutgers, there is the potential for the Zika virus to become a problem right here in the Garden State.

Fortunately, winter weather patterns here in New Jersey are not conducive to mosquitoes. As long as it’s cold outside, there’s no need to worry. However, this year we have had wet weather conditions this winter and spring because of El Nino. Once temperatures start to climb back up, we can expect a heavy mosquito season. According to Fonsesca, it will take until July for mosquitoes that are capable of transmitting Zika to establish themselves here. Mosquito larvae start hatching in May, and by July, the females have reached the stage in their reproductive cycle when they require a “blood meal” from a mammal (only female mosquitoes bite!).

How can you protect yourself?

Most importantly, if you are traveling internationally, be cautious if you are setting foot in areas where the Zika virus is known to be active. Prior to travel, check the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) travel alerts. If you are pregnant and thinking about traveling to an active Zika region, you may want to reconsider your travel plans to protect your baby given the seriousness of an infection.

Next, even if you are staying right here at the Jersey Shore, prepare yourself for the upcoming mosquito season. Practice vigilance in mosquito control by protecting yourself from coming into contact with mosquitoes and by eliminating breeding grounds around your home by eliminating any standing water.

How can I prevent mosquitoes and mosquito bites?

We are expecting heavy mosquito populations this season, and we want you, your family, and your pets to be able to enjoy your property. Please consider our Mosquito Defense Program.  By substantially reducing mosquito populations on your property, our program will reduce mosquito bites and the risk of contracting a mosquito-borne illness. For scheduling purposes, keep in mind that treatments typically begin around early May once temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. 

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