County, city and health officials gathered at a news conference February 4, 2016, to educate the public and address concerns about the Zika virus.
After listening to three health officials discuss the virus, Smith County Judge Joel Baker said the county will consider the advice of experts and the Commissioners Court will meet with county emergency management officials soon to discuss the issue and begin developing a plan of action.
Judge Baker said his goal is to help educate the public about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has spread to 10 confirmed cases in Texas, and to ask Smith County residents to follow the advice of experts.
George Roberts, CEO of the Northeast Texas Public Health District, said the Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1947. In May 2015, the first confirmed case in Brazil was discovered and it has since spread throughout Central America and South America.
Those infected suffer minor symptoms, including fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, for about a week. Hospitalization is uncommon. Women who were pregnant and contracted the virus have had babies with birth defects such as microcephaly, or babies born with small heads.
“Children born with birth defects is the major concern right now,” Roberts said.
About 80 percent of people infected with the virus will never show symptoms and don’t know they have it, according to Dr. Jeffrey Levin, Smith County Health Authority and Senior Vice President of Clinical and Academic Affairs at UT Health Northeast.
As of Thursday, there were 10 confirmed cases in Texas – seven in Harris County, two in Dallas County and one in Bexar County. Nine of those were people who had recently traveled to a country impacted by the Zika virus, while one person in Dallas contracted it by sexual contact.
Roberts urged pregnant women not to travel to countries in Central America or South America, where the virus is ongoing. For people traveling to those countries, he recommended they take precautions to protect themselves from mosquito bites, during their trip and after they return.
“The main thing is protecting yourself from mosquito bites,” Roberts said. “Mosquito season is coming.”
“There are currently 3,670 cases of possible Zika virus being investigated, and experts are looking at the link between the virus and the serious birth defects,” said Dr. Paul McGaha, Deputy Director, Northeast Texas Center for Rural Community Health, and Associate Professor for Community Health and Preventive Medicine at UT Health Northeast.
The region most affected by the Zika virus starts at the Rio Grande River, down to Central America and South America, to Brazil; as well as in Africa, he said. It is carried by the Aedes variety of mosquito, which mostly feeds during the daytime. If a mosquito feeds on one infected person, it can then spread it to another person. He said they are watching for the return of travelers from the impacted areas and are monitoring the transmission.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the only organization testing for the Zika virus right now.
“Until more is known, everyone is acting very cautiously here,” Levin said.
There is no drug or medical treatment, as well as no vaccine, for the virus as it stands today, he said.
For those who contract Zika, the suggested care is rest, fluids and over-the-counter pain medication. Those who are pregnant should contact their health care provider.
“Prevention should be emphasized,” Levin said. He encouraged people to wear long, loose-fitting clothing and to use mosquito repellant containing DEET. To prepare for mosquito season, he said make sure there is no standing water around your house, including in tires, buckets, wheelbarrows or pots, and to clean out your gutters.
“Don’t grow your own mosquitos,” Roberts said.
After the start of symptoms, people should avoid mosquito bites for at least seven days to stop the spread of Zika, and should not donate blood for 28 days. Blood banks are not testing right now but are asking people who have traveled to affected countries to delay donating for at least 28 days.
Levin said they don’t know if a person who contracts the virus, gets rid of it and then becomes pregnant could have a baby with birth defects. He believes that would be unlikely, he added.
“We’re going to be watching this for a while,” Levin said. “We’re way early in this right now.”
Levin said the virus is only spreadable from human to human by blood-to-blood contact, or bodily fluids contaminated with blood. “The contact would not be casual,” he added.
Levin said Zika is not the only virus out there so if you contract a fever or rash, it could be a number of things. People should not conclude that they have Zika.