As international concerns escalate about the Zika virus, the state of Texas is buckling down to protect it’s citizens. As of March 31, according to the CDC there have been no cases of people in the U.S. contracting the Zika virus after being bit by mosquitoes in the U.S. However some Americans have already contracted the virus while traveling abroad to countries where the virus is active, making them future hosts for American mosquitoes who could then spread the virus. Also as of March 31, the Texas Department of State Health Services said that there are 27 cases of people with the Zika virus in Texas. Most acquired the virus through traveling, and one person contracted Zika from having a sexual interaction with someone who had traveled abroad.
The Department of State Health Services has assembled a team of entomologists to help brainstorm the best ways to identify, control, and prevent Zika virus in the Lone Star State. Steve Presley, Ph.D. who runs the Vectorborne Zoonoses Lab at Texas Tech is one of the members of that Zika task force, he has studied mosquitoes for three decades.
“Because [Zika] hasn’t occurred here before, we don’t know,” Presley said. “There’s a lot here we don’t know about Zika.”
To learn more, scientists around the state, including Presley are making plans for laboratory tests of both mosquito and human samples.
“There’s now a lot more laboratories capable of screening human clinical samples, in fact we’re one of them now,” Presley explained. “Previously all samples were to be sent to CDC then they revised that all samples will be sent to the Department of State Health Services in Austin. Now there’s other labs–there’s four or five labs in Texas– that can receive and do the diagnostics on human clinical samples.”
Currently, the plan is for Presley’s lab to begin screening mosquito samples for Zika once a person in the Lubbock area is diagnosed with the virus.
He explained that the type of mosquitoes which carry Zika have lived in Lubbock County for many years. But it’s not clear how many other counties on the South Plains also see both species of mosquitoes which can carry the virus.
He explained that scientists across Texas are now planning to survey counties for Zika carrying mosquitoes, many counties have never tested for those mosquitoes before.
Presley added that Zika carrying mosquitoes prefer to live in developed areas around humans, as opposed to the grassland areas found on much of the Panhandle.
He said it’s important to remember that the type of mosquitoes which carry Zika are different than the type of mosquitoes which carry West Nile. Many Texas cities are accustomed to treating for West Nile carrying mosquitoes, and it’s not clear if the same strategies will be effective for Zika carrying mosquitoes.
“We know in Texas there are a lot of places where resistance testing hasn’t been done in a long time,” Presley said. “They’ve found over probably the past 25 or 30 years, mosquitoes develop resistance by certain physiological symptoms over a period of time, so in any given area, for Vector Control, it’s usually recommended that they rotate different pesticides from year to year and do resistance testing.”
While Presley and other state experts are busy strategizing about how to keep the Zika virus at bay, Presley said that because Zika is primarily a “backyard virus,” Texas need’s the public’s help to prevent the spread of Zika.
He explained that for the Texas scientists working to prevent Zika, public education is one of their primary focuses.
“Because these mosquito vectors like to live around houses and vegetation, the homeowners play a major role, especially if they run lawn irrigation, they should dump any standing water, empty bird baths, and turn off sprinklers.”
Presley reiterated that standing water in even the smallest backyard items– toys, bottle caps, bird feeders– can become breeding grounds for Zika carrying mosquitoes.
He said that to prevent the spread of ZIka carrying mosquitoes, homeowners should dump standing water, spray their yards with pesticides (especially around windows and doors), keep lawns and yards well mowed, and take precautionary measures like wearing long sleeves and using DEET based mosquito repellant.
“It comes down to individual responsibility for ensuring your family is safe,” Presley said.