AUSTIN, TX - State lawmakers met Tuesday to prepare for a Zika outbreak in Texas, something some medical experts believe is inevitable.
“Right now we are really on alert to Zika,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, Commissioner of the State’s Department of Health Services.
State health officials have recorded 34 Zika cases in Texas—all of those people were infected outside of the U.S.
Hellerstedt said it’s not a question of if, but when Texas will see an outbreak.
“We don’t know when and we don’t really know at what level that will occur,” Hellerstedt said, “It could be small pockets, it could be large areas.”
Transmitted by mosquitoes, the virus poses the biggest threat to pregnant women. Zika has been linked to miscarriages and microcephaly, a birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads.
“There is a big black hole where the brain should be,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine.
Hotez called Zika “the virus from hell” and “every parent’s nightmare.”
“There is no brain there and the skull collapses around the absent brain,” Hotez said.
He believes the risk of an outbreak will peak in June or July, the mosquitoes will be swarming when summer goes into full swing.
The State Health Commissioner, Hellerstedt, said Texas is already doing mosquito surveillance, tracking birth defects and doing outbreak drills at county health departments.
“If we do see evidence of a local transmission of Zika virus, the first thing we are going to do is stand-up an incident command-like center,” Hellerstedt said.
The state also recommends every pregnant woman in that area be tested for Zika.
However, when questioned by the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, Hellerstedt said the state can only test a few dozen cases per week. Both lawmakers and medical experts agreed that won’t be enough if there’s an outbreak.
“It’s a virus that one can cause explosive epidemics. It can infect hundreds if not thousands of pregnant women and I can’t think of a more nightmarish scenario,” Hotez said.
The Aedes aegypt, the type of mosquito known to be the main carrier of the virus, is commonly found in Texas.
“The recipe for Zika is the Aedes aegypt mosquito plus people,” Hellerstedt said.
The mosquitoes are known to live in close proximity to people, as humans are their main meal source. Hellerstedt said the mosquitoes do not travel more than 200 meters from where they hatch.
“So again, while Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes it’s actually spread by human beings.”
Zika causes symptoms such as as fever, rashes and joint pain, but most people don’t experience any symptoms of the virus. However, people who are infected can continue to transmit the virus for up to a week and many don’t even know they are sick.
“It’s really kind of a chain reaction,” Hellerstedt said the best way to break that chain is to prevent mosquito bites.
“There is only one weapon that we have against Zika and that is to fight the mosquito,” Hellerstedt said.
The Senate Committee did discuss mosquito abatement and control programs but those are operated by local governments, not the state.
Scientists have also said they aren’t sure what pesticide sprays will work on the Aedes aegypt mosquitoes. The local populations have built up resistance to different solutions of insecticides.
When an outbreak begins, the next big question is how widespread it will be. Health officials said that depends on if Texans take preventative measures, like drain any standing water and avoid mosquito bites.
The U.S. Senate Tuesday approved $1.1 in immediate funds be used to battle the Zika virus. That’s well above the $622 million Zika research funding proposal House Republicans unveiled Monday.
The proposals from both the Senate and the House are far short of President Barack Obama’s initial request for $1.9 billion to fight Zika.
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