The possibility of the Zika virus within Franklin County is not a reason for panic.
Pregnancy and mosquitoes on St. George Island has already been the topic of a public discussion on Trip Advisor.
There have now been travel-related cases of Zika documented in both Leon and Bay counties. Mosquito-borne Zika is a reality in the area around Miami.
Does this mean we can expect mosquito borne Zika in the Panhandle and even Franklin County?
The short answer is, yes.
Two of the mosquito species known to transmit Zika, Aedes aegypti, commonly called the “yellow fever mosquito” and Aedes albopictus, aka the “Asian tiger mosquito,” are found in Franklin County and, with the many visitors we welcome every year, it’s fairly certain we will see Zika here before long.
A. aegypti is the native mosquito implicated in the horrific outbreaks of yellow fever that once ravaged the Gulf Coast and are now a thing of the past. A. albopictus, native to Asia, was first found in Florida in 1985.
Both mosquitoes can also vector dengue fever but we have not experienced a dengue epidemic and are unlikely to do so, for the same reason we are unlikely to experience a catastrophic outbreak of Zika. Thankfully, we rarely experience outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease in the US and never on the scale during the pioneer years because we understand mosquito control. We have infrastructure in place to limit contact with disease-bearing mosquitoes.
Dewitt Polous Director of Franklin County’s mosquito control program said he is taking extra precautions to keep tabs on the looming threat of Zika.
He said, “We are running three BG traps to catch (the Aedes mosquitoes) that carry Zika. I have been identifying mosquitoes with a microscope and sending to the Bronson Animal Disease diagnostic Laboratory in Kissimmee. We’ve sent seven or eight samples so far and they are tested for Zika, Dengue fever and Chickamauga (two other diseases carried by Aedes mosquitoes). So far, all of the samples have come back negative.
Polous urged everyone to clean up around their homes and remove containers that are potential breeding sites for Aedes mosquitoes.
“We are a small control district and I really need everyone’s cooperation,” he said.
Zika is one of a growing number of diseases like influenza and West Nile Virus that has made the jump from an animal species to human beings. It actually poses little threat to most people causing mild flulike symptoms, a rash and pinkeye. An estimated 80 percent of people who contract Zika experience no symptoms at all.
For pregnant women, the disease is more serious. Zika can cause birth defects including a serious condition known as microcephaly where the brain fails to develop normally.
Between the first documented case of Zika in Brazil in Oct. 2015 and Jan. 2016, almost 4000 Brazilian babies were born with microcephaly, compared to about 150 per year prior to the Zika epidemic.
While this is shocking, it is important to remember there are significant differences between the lifestyle of the average resident of the Panhandle and that of many Brazilian nationals. Floridians are less likely to be exposed to Zika.
Most of the population of Brazil is concentrated in a few densely populated cities. Less than one third of Brazilian residences have air conditioning which means people spend much time outside or with windows and doors open to catch a breeze, and may sleep exposed on rooftops or other outdoor locations during hot weather. Also, Brazil is a poor nation and public services like mosquito control, which we take for granted, are often unavailable.
By contrast, there are few metropolitan areas in the Panhandle. Practically all residences and businesses are air-conditioned. People spend a great deal of time indoors and can easily escape indoors during periods of high mosquito activity. Every Panhandle county has a mosquito control program.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) there are currently more than 500 pregnant women in the US who have tested positive for Zika. Updated information on this can be viewed at: www.cdc.gov/zika. To date 16 pregnancies in the US have terminated in a damaged infant and five miscarriages have been attributed to Zika.
None of the pregnant women affected so far contracted the disease from a U.S.-based mosquito bite. All either traveled to a Zika-infected area or had sexual relations with a traveler.