FIGHT THE BITE: Gulf Coast Conditions Make the Perfect Storm for Zika Outbreak

Some say it’s only a matter of time before we start to see mosquito-borne cases of the Zika virus in the United States, and when that happens, the Gulf Coast could find itself out ground zero.

Dr. William Green, Infectious Disease doctor at USA said, “it’s a probability that we could see some local disease eventually.”

Medical experts have conflicting opinions of just how big or small an outbreak on the Gulf Coast would be.

” I think the chance that we’re going to have a huge outbreak like what’s happening in the Caribbean right now is fairly small,” said Infectious Disease Doctor Steven Alsip.

” I predict if we are going to start seeing zika cases, then we’re going to start seeing them soon in the coming weeks,” said Doctor Peter Hotez through a facetime interview from his office in Houston, TX.

Hotez helps create vaccines for tropical diseases and says doctors are working to create a useable zika vaccine, but nothing will be ready in time for this year’s looming epidemic.

“This is a vaccine that’s going to be used for pregnant women, and that’s the highest regulatory bar there is, in terms of assuring safety. While I think we can move rapidly towards first human phase one clinical trials, the fact we need to target pregnant women means we’re not going to have this vaccine anytime soon,” Hotez said.

If you combine the Aedes family of mosquitos with pockets of poverty like you have in parts of Mobile, Hotez says you have the perfect storm for a future outbreak.

“The crowding in neighborhoods and poor parts of cities like Mobile like Houston and New Orleans, I’m quite concerned we could be seeing microcephaly cases,” Hotez said.  “If we start seeing clusters of microcephaly cases in babies in poorer gulf coast areas, it will not be looked upon well. It will cause panic and fear, especially  among pregnant women, and people will talk about it in the same context as hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill or other disasters.”

Most people infected won’t even know they have. Only one in 5 show any symptoms at all, and if they do, they’re usually similar to any other virus.

“The symptoms of zika are like any other virus you might catch: fever, rash, muscle aches. Those are the main symptoms,” Alsip said. “Once you’re infected with it, you actually may carry the virus for a couple of months and be at risk to someone else.”

The virus is linked to severe birth defects in babies, and even though we haven’t seen any mosquito-borne cases in the US yet, expectant mothers are anxious for if and when that changes.
“When I was pregnant with my first child, I think I was just nervous because I hadn’t been a parent before. This time, I actually was really excited and not nervous at all until recently with Zika,” Stephany Carter said. ” I just wear bug spray every time  I go out because you just want to avoid getting bit by any mosquitos.”

Some national health officials have been toying with the idea of advising women to avoid getting pregnant this summer, but so far they haven’t made that call. Part of the reason is because what we know about Zika evolves every day.

If you think this is the first time Mobile has ever been threatened by the Aedes mosquito, it’s not.

Nearly every person buried at Church Street Graveyard downtown died from Yellow fever, a deadly disease carried by the same mosquito as the zika virus.
Daryn Glassbrook/ executive director, Mobile Medical Museum
” It was called the scourge of the south and as Mobile grew, there were annual outbreaks of the disease. Between 1819 and 1878 there were eight epidemic years,” Mobile Medical Museum Director Daryn Glassbrook said. “originally there were different theories as to what caused the disease. In 1847, Dr. Josiah Nott, founder of the old medical college in Mobile, was the first to propose that the disease was carried by mosquitos.”
Yellow Fever is far more deadly than Zika, but just as Mobile was caught off guard with that outbreak, history could repeat itself if we’re not prepared now.

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