- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Rising U.S. temperatures are forcing federal and state officials to gird for yet another bout with Zika, the mosquito-borne disease that triggered unprecedented travel warnings to pregnant women and sent sales of bug-repellent soaring before fading from view over the winter.

After dire warnings from some quarters last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it won’t try to guess how many cases the U.S. will see this year, though the agency says “small pockets of transmission” similar to the flare-ups in Florida and Texas last year are likely.

The agency said its warning about future transmission isn’t limited to those two states, however, since Zika’s main vector — the Aedes aegypti mosquito — roams beyond their borders, reaching most of the southern U.S.

“Mosquito-borne disease outbreaks are difficult to predict,” CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes said. “There will be future outbreaks, including large ones, as well as years with reduced transmission, but it is impossible to know when or where these transmission patterns will occur.”

States that combatted Zika firsthand in 2016 have been particularly vocal about leveraging available resources to beat back the disease this time around.

Health officials in Texas this month said pregnant women in six counties near the Mexican border should be tested for the virus during their first and second trimesters, even if they haven’t traveled to a Zika-affected area abroad or experienced symptoms. Previously, the state only advised pregnant women in the town of Brownsville to get tested no matter what.

It also said anyone in those counties should now get tested if they have a rash or at least one other Zika symptom, such as fever, joint pain or red eyes, saying new funding from Congress helped them boost their lab capacity and surveillance in 2017.

Zika remains a significant health risk to pregnant women and their babies, and it’s only a matter of time until we see local transmission here again,” Commissioner John Hellerstedt said. “We want to cast as wide a net as possible with testing to increase our ability to find and respond to cases, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley remains the part of the state most at risk for Zika transmission.”

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is conducting roundtables to alert county officials to state resources and make sure the virus is “top of mind” as another summer approaches.

New federal funding and scientific advances allowed the state to expand its lab capacity and test for Zika in a way that clearly separates it from related viruses, the state health department said.

Zika was a relatively obscure virus before it hopscotched to the Americas in 2015 and burst into the headlines early last year, when scientists found an unprecedented link between an insect-borne disease and birth defects. The most recognizable one is microcephaly, in which infants have abnormally small heads.

A bitter dispute over federal funding to combat the disease generated even more headlines before Congress rallied around a $1.1-billion fund late last year, just about the time that an intense presidential election and dropping temperatures pushed the Zika threat off the front pages.

But spring has sprung again, and officials are warning pregnant women and others to cover up, use bugspray and toss standing water from flower pots, bird baths and other areas where mosquitos can breed.

The CDC expects fewer cases in Puerto Rico this year, but only because the island was hit so hard last year, meaning a significant portion of the population will have developed immunity from infection.

The consequences of infection can be particularly severe for pregnant women, no matter where they’re bitten.

A recent CDC report said women with suspected cases of Zika had a 5 percent rate of virus-spawned birth defects, while those with lab-confirmed cases showed a 10 percent rate.

The mothers of all 51 babies with birth defects were infected outside of the U.S., as Zika largely remains a travel-related disease in the states.

Roughly 4,900 people have returned to the continental U.S. with infections they picked up abroad, with about 400 of those cases arriving this year, according to CDC figures.

Florida officials said it is critical for travelers to prevent mosquito bites for at least three weeks after returning from a Zika-affected area.

“If you traveled to an area with Zika, you could have become infected and not know it, and you could spread the virus in your community if you do not take proper precautions against mosquito bites after you return home,” said Mara Gambineri, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Department.

She said travel-related cases are down overall so far in 2017 — about 30 compared to 70 at this point last year.

Florida officials hope that means their message is getting through, though the epidemic has leveled off from its peaks in Central America, South America and the Caribbean in early-to-mid 2016.

The World Health Organization and CDC are trying to avoid complacency for now, noting local transmission of Zika has hit dozens of countries since 2015.

“Although the Zika virus epidemic in the Americas has decreased in intensity, it remains a global threat,” Mr. Haynes said. “There continues to be Zika transmission in many countries. Because large outbreaks could recur, and because of the severity of Zika virus-associated complications, countries and territories in the Americas and other regions where the mosquitoes that can spread Zika are present should maintain surveillance for Zika virus infection and its complications, strengthen capacity for laboratory diagnosis of Zika virus and continue to implement prevention and control measures.”

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