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Zika Concerns in Houston as Flood Subsides

HOUSTON (CN) — The fight against the Zika virus has a new sense of urgency in Houston, with the city moving quickly to dispose of debris from last week's storm before it becomes mosquito breeding grounds.

More than 1,000 homes and apartments were flooded by the April 18 storm that dropped 17 inches of rain in northwest Houston and killed eight people.

Affected residents are now gutting the interiors of their homes, throwing out damaged drywall, flooring and furniture in curbside piles for pickup by the city.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that private contractors and the city's solid waste department have collected 44,000 cubic yards of storm refuse since Saturday.

"That's a lot of debris," Turner said Wednesday during a Houston City Council meeting.

Discarded debris is prime real estate for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which feeds on human blood and transmits the Zika virus after picking it up from an infected human.

Before the storm, Turner said, the city was focused on cleaning up illegal dump sites with the Zika virus in mind.

"The city completed nine weeks of this targeted collection before the floods, and during that time 26 tons of debris and nearly 1,500 discarded tires were hauled away," the mayor said at the meeting.

Experts say discarded tires, plastic bottle caps and small containers make optimal reservoirs for the larvae of the Aedes aegypti.

"It's not just about removing debris. We are quickly removing the debris because of the Zika virus threat. It's a public health issue for us. And with all these piles of debris in front of people's homes and it continuing to rain, we have to get this debris off the streets [and] out of these neighborhoods as quickly as possible," Turner said.

The cleanup is a preemptive measure against the virus that has been linked to cognitive birth defects in Central and South America, but has not yet been transmitted in the continental United States, the mayor said.

Experts predict the Zika virus could become a major health crisis in the U.S. as the weather warms and the mosquitoes become active, which has not yet happened in Houston.

Dr. David Persse, the city's medical director, told the Houston City Council he expects the mosquito's larvae to start hatching locally in mid-May.

Persse called last week's heavy rain beneficial in the short term because it flushed the mosquito larvae from culverts, ditches, sewers and storm drains, but bad in the long term since it formed more breeding grounds.

He said the Aedes aegypti has evolved a way to procreate that is unique among mosquito species and that makes containment efforts all the more challenging.

"It can lay eggs in water and if the water dries up and the eggs have not become larvae they will become dormant until they get wet again," Persse said. "The eggs can reanimate. So that is a particular feature of this mosquito that makes it especially difficult for us to keep up with. So it's going to be a diligent, ongoing effort."

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