- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas has identified 33 cases of the Zika virus that all have been associated with overseas travel, but the virus is expected to begin spreading locally within the state during the sweaty upcoming summer months, top health officials said Tuesday.

Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt told a Texas Senate health panel that potential hot zones include Dallas, Houston, the Gulf Coast and the Rio Grande Valley. Poor areas are likely to be hardest hit since they tend to be rife with standing water and bits of old tires that are breeding havens for mosquitoes, which carry the virus.

“We do believe that Texas will, at some point, likely experience mosquito vector transmission,” Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt told a state Senate health committee meeting. “We don’t know when and we don’t really know at what level that will occur.”

There have been 500-plus cases of Zika in the continental U.S., but so far all involved travel to foreign locales. Hellerstedt said the virus had now been detected in nearly all of Latin America and that some cases of local transmission had been reported in Mexico, though not along the U.S. border.

“One of the big advantages that we have over other parts of the world in terms of Zika is our ability to see it coming and prepare for it,” he said.

Testing for the virus can be complicated since one method involves drawing blood that will only come up positive in people infected for a window of up to seven days after exposure. Also, Texas only has the capacity to conduct a few dozen such tests a week, meaning an outbreak could overwhelm the system.

Gov. Greg Abbott has created an infectious disease task force, and academics and scientists around the state are also working on a vaccine - but don’t expect it to be ready by Memorial Day, when peak mosquito season begins.

The key to containing the virus is mosquito eradication, most of which is funded locally. Dallas County and other areas have recent experience with spraying from the air to curb the mosquito-borne spread of the West Nile virus - but such efforts aren’t likely to be successful since Zika is spread by the Aedes species mosquito, which is harder to fight from afar than other species.

Texas officials already are recalling the lessons of Ebola, when a Liberian man died in Dallas and two nurses became infected while treating him - sparking widespread fear. Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, opened Tuesday’s hearing by saying officials have “seen what happens when we kind of get behind the 8 ball” like the state did with Ebola.

But Zika is easier to spread than Ebola and can be contracted via mosquitoes or through sexual contact. Campbell pressed officials on why Texas can’t simply exterminate all mosquitoes, saying “I’m just interested in killing them all.”

Peter Hotez, a task force member and pediatrician and microbiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that while he was never worried about a widespread Ebola outbreak in Texas, he does worry about one occurring with Zika. He said such an outbreak affecting just a small percentage of Texas’ population could cause up to $1 billion in lost productivity, hospitalization costs and Medicaid expenditures.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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