Zika and West Nile: Know Your Risk This Summer in North Texas
Summer in North Texas is in full swing, along with backyard barbecues, weekends at the lake and most likely plenty of itchy mosquito bites. Unfortunately, mosquitoes have become more than just pesky pests in recent years, with the arrival of the West Nile and Zika viruses.
West Nile and the latest worldwide health concern, the Zika virus, are both mosquito-borne viruses that are a short-term nuisance for most infected people. For a few, however, these viruses can have a destructive, long-term impact.
The Zika and West Nile viruses are primarily contracted through bites from infected mosquitoes. Zika has recently been discovered to be passed through unprotected sexual contact, and both viruses can be passed from a pregnant mother to her child, with potentially harmful results.
Texas Health Resources physicians are doing their part to help.
“At THR we have been proactive by adding Zika to our ever-enlarging list of Emerging Infectious Diseases for which screening is done at entry to all THR facilities,” said Edward Goodman, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. “In our role as partners with the public health authorities, we will be vigilant and report cases of suspected Zika infection to the authorities. We have educated our health care providers in the Emergency and Ob-Gyn departments to be aware of Zika virus infection and to recommend testing to pregnant women who might have had exposure to the virus.”
So when is a mosquito bite more than just an itchy annoyance? According to the Centers for Disease Control, up to 80 percent of people infected with West Nile and Zika don’t develop any symptoms at all. If symptoms like fever, rash, muscle and/or joint pain do appear, they are usually so mild people don’t even bother going to the doctor. For a few, however, Zika and West Nile can have a lasting impact.
The primary concern with Zika is for pregnant women, as researchers have discovered an alarming and direct correlation between the virus and devastating fetal brain birth defects, including microcephaly, as well as miscarriage.
In the case of West Nile virus, the 20 percent of infected people that do exhibit symptoms may deal with fatigue and weakness that can last up to several months. Less than 1 percent of those infected with West Nile develop neurological illnesses, such as encephalitis or meningitis, which can lead to death.
As the mosquito population becomes more active during the summer months, Dr. Goodman said he expects the number of cases of West Nile and Zika to rise.
“Given that the species of mosquito that transmits Zika is common in Texas, we can expect that this region will see locally transmitted cases as mosquitoes bite infected travelers returning from Zika epidemic regions and transmit it here,” Goodman said. “Although the mosquito species that transmits West Nile virus infection is different, Dallas County was the epicenter of the 2012 West Nile epidemic, the largest urban epidemic ever reported. Therefore, we must be prepared for a large number of cases of Zika in the coming months.”
If you suspect West Nile or Zika, see a doctor right away, especially if you are pregnant. If you’ve traveled to an area where Zika is prevalent, avoid being bitten by mosquitoes as best you can for several weeks after you return home. Even if you are asymptomatic, previously uninfected mosquitoes could pick up the Zika virus from you and infect others.
Researchers are drilling down on how Zika is transmitted through sexual contact and how long the danger after exposure lasts, but there are still many unknowns. If you and/or your partner have recently traveled to an area where Zika is prevalent, delay sexual contact or practice protected sex, especially if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Since there aren’t vaccines or cures for Zika or West Nile, physicians and public health officials point to bite prevention and awareness when traveling as our best weapons.
“Each one of us has a role in preventing Zika and West Nile infections,” Goodman said. “Get rid of standing water in empty flower pots and old tires sitting out in driveways where mosquitoes love to breed. Most importantly, we should ensure that all of us, including our children, use mosquito repellant with DEET and consider Permethrin for our clothing and tent netting.
“Staying indoors with air conditioning and closed windows is also important. Additionally, be aware that unlike the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus infection, those that transmit Zika can bite any time of day or night.”
You can still enjoy those dog days of summer all around North Texas, whether catching an outdoor concert at Gexa Energy Pavilion or hitting the trail at White Rock Lake. Just make sure you protect yourself from mosquito bites and keep an eye out for any suspicious symptoms that might point to West Nile or Zika, especially if you’re pregnant.
Mosquitoes may never cease to be annoying, but prevention and awareness are the best ways you can bite back. For more information visit texaszika.org.