HOUSTON (CN) – As Texas tries to establish the extent of a Zika virus outbreak, a state health director said he’s already looking ahead: “It’s going to be here next season, absolutely.”
“When the weather warms up again next year it will pick up again, at least where it left off, and potentially go from there,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services and director of the governor’s task force on infectious disease.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said this week the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded Texas a $5 million grant to fight the virus, which has been linked to congenital brain defects in babies since Brazil reported the first cases in the Western Hemisphere in March 2015.
The virus can cross the placenta and attack fetal brain cells, leading to miscarriages, damaged or missing brain tissue and microcephaly, in which a child is born with a small head and developmental problems.
After announcing the first suspected case of a Texan contracting the virus from an in-state mosquito bite in late November, the Department of State Health Services said on Friday that four more people who live near the first victim’s Brownsville home have tested positive for the disease.
Though the first Texas case was identified in the city of more than 180,000 on the Mexican border, the secretary of A 2 Z Termite and Pest Control in Brownsville said the company hasn’t received any calls from people alarmed about the virus.
“We haven’t heard that much concern. Not yet. It’s usually during the summer and fall that people get freaked out about mosquitoes, not right now. People call when they want to have a party outside their home and tell the owner, ‘Can you spray the walls for mosquitoes?’” Monica Kimoshita said. She said the company’s pesticides work on spiders, ants, scorpions and mosquitoes.
Brownsville is the seat of Cameron County, whose health department did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Before the five suspected local transmissions of the disease, more than 250 people in Texas tested positive for the virus, but all of them had traveled to areas where it’s spreading or had sex with an infected traveler, according to the state health department.
Zika can be passed through sexual contact. It has been found in semen, urine and blood. It’s unknown whether lesbian sex can spread the virus.
Mosquitoes become dormant when the temperatures drop to near freezing, but South Texas’ mild winters mean they could be active year-round.
Aedes aegytpi, the mosquito that passes the virus, like to live near homes so they can feed on people’s blood. It’s possible they could move into homes for the winter, allowing them to stay active throughout the season, according to health officials.
Hellerstedt, the Texas health commissioner, said during a recent presentation in Austin that he’s not surprised Zika is being transmitted in Texas. News outlets in Mexico have been reporting that the virus has a foothold there.
“I’ve been saying all along we would inevitably see local vector transmission of Zika in Texas. I was hoping it would be next season,” Hellerstedt said.
“But it absolutely will be next season, I’m certain as well, and many years after that, until we find a more permanent solution to protect women and their unborn children from Zika.”
Hellerstedt and other doctors have cautioned that development of a vaccine will be slow because the most at-risk population, pregnant women, present the most difficult problems for clinical studies.
He said the continental United States is lucky to be far enough from the equator that winter should put mosquito breeding on hold.
”One of the major advantages we have in the U.S. over places like Brazil and places in Central and South America is that we saw this coming. We have a mosquito season and a non-mosquito season through most of the continental U.S. Most tropical areas don’t. They have mosquitoes essentially all year round,” Hellerstedt said at the Dec. 6 talk, “Zika: Looking Ahead,” which has been posted on the internet.
Despite the warnings, partisan gridlock prevented Congress this year from approving President Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to fight the virus.
Hellerstedt said he does not expect the Zika virus, which mosquitoes pick up from the blood of infected humans, to spread in the United States to the extent it has in Mexico, because Aedes aegypti also transmit the dengue and chikungunya viruses.
“We know we have very sporadic cases of those in Texas, but on the other side of the border in communities in Mexico they have hundreds and hundreds of cases,” he said.
Experts say poor people who live in homes without air-conditioning and window screens are more likely to become infected with Zika. Studies in Brazil have borne this out.
“We absolutely have areas where people live in abject poverty [in Texas] with no screens or air-conditioners and lots of standing water around,” Hellerstedt said.
However, “There’s still a big, big difference in how much we have of that on the Texas side of the border and in Mexican communities.”
Florida is the only other U.S. state where the virus is known to have spread locally, and aggressive pesticide-spraying there has been effective.
Florida and federal health officials declared on Nov. 22 that two areas of Miami Beach were free of local Zika transmission, meaning no one had contracted the virus there in the past 45 days.
Hellerstedt said Texas and Cameron County health workers are getting advice from Florida officials on how to identify Zika hotspots and contain the virus, but he stressed it’s not leaving Texas any time soon.
“It’s here. It’s here to stay. It’s going to be with us for as many mosquito seasons as I care to even contemplate, so I really hope we can find ways to master this threat, because it’s really a devastating thing to an unborn child,” Hellerstedt said.