When it comes to the Zika virus, state health officials lobby for prevention and caution

  • A medical researcher uses a monitor that shows the results of blood tests for various diseases, including Zika, at the Gorgas Memorial laboratory in Panama City. New Hampshire officials said Friday that there are three confirmed cases of Zika in the state. AP file

  • N.H. state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and DHHS official Beth Daly listen to local doctors discuss the Zika virus at Concord Hospital on Friday morning. Ella Nilsen, Monitor staff—

Monitor staff
Published: 4/22/2016 10:00:32 PM

As the weather warms and mosquitoes start biting, New Hampshire’s health officials are warning residents to be vigilant against the Zika virus.

While there are few signs the United States is poised to have a Zika outbreak on the same scale as the one in Central and South America, cases are starting to pop up across the country, mostly from travelers returning home from affected countries.

At a Friday morning briefing on Zika hosted by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen at Concord Hospital, state health officials said there are three confirmed cases in New Hampshire, and 149 others in the state being tested for the virus.

While Zika itself produces mild symptoms, it has been linked to severe birth defects in babies of mothers infected with Zika.

The defects include microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains. It has also been linked to neurological problems in adults, causing temporary paralysis in some patients.

The White House is starting to take action, recently asking Congress to appropriate $1.8 billion in emergency funding to prepare for Zika. Shaheen said it’s still unclear how much of that funding will be allocated to New Hampshire for grants to help the state epidemiologist’s office with lab testing.

“It’s important for us to pass some emergency funding to help states respond to this,” Shaheen said. “Just something as small as how do we get the lab information back to people as soon as possible is important so they know how to react.”

New Hampshire health officials have started to craft a Zika response plan, and State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said health officials are focusing their efforts on education and prevention.

“Our main focus has been prevention of Zika virus in pregnant women,” Chan said. “The main risk to people, specifically pregnant women, remains to be travel to affected areas.”

Americans who have been infected with Zika have largely gotten it from being bitten by mosquitoes while traveling in Central and South America, but scientists also suspect the virus can be sexually transmitted.

The first confirmed Zika case in New Hampshire, announced in early March, involved a woman who was infected after she had sexual contact with a man who had traveled to a Zika-affected country, state officials said. The woman was not pregnant.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Disease Control administrator Beth Daly said none of the confirmed cases in New Hampshire have not yet experienced other neurological effects linked to the virus.

Chan said people should avoid traveling to these countries and those who have recently returned from affected areas should get tested for Zika.

Hilary Alvarez, a women’s health and family practitioner at Concord Hospital, told Shaheen and health officials that she’s been getting a fair amount of questions from female patients over the past few months, especially ones planning to have babies in the near future.

Alvarez said many of her female patients are canceling vacations they had planned. She added some of her patients whose husbands are in the military and stationed in affected countries are asking how they can protect themselves from the possibility of virus transmission.

“We’re nowhere near panic, I think we’re more in the controlled risk zone,” Alvarez said. “We’re talking mostly about symptoms of infection and about how this is sort of a moving target, so sort of staying up to date, chatting with me as they come home.”

On Friday, some health officials at the roundtable stressed the importance of making sure women who could come in contact with the virus had access to birth control.

The two species of mosquitoes that can carry Zika haven’t yet been found in New Hampshire, but local insect experts said there is a possibility one species could come to the area.

That species – the Aedes albopictus – has been found as far north as Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“It could be here now and we haven’t found it,” said Sarah MacGregor, president of Dragon Mosquito Control.

MacGregor and fellow insect control specialist Justin Adams of Swamp, Inc. talked about ways to do surveillance of and try to control New Hampshire’s mosquito populations.

While other species of mosquitoes carrying diseases, such as Eastern Equine Encephalitis, tend to breed in salt marshes along the seacoast, the Aedes albopictus has been known to breed in standing water just about anywhere – in old tires, tarps, even items as small as discarded bottle caps.

MacGregor and Adams told health officials it’s imperative to try to get people to clean up any debris or junk lying around their property that could collect rainwater and create a perfect breeding spot for mosquitoes.

“Clean up your yard, don’t let that wheelbarrow collect rain all summer long, things like that,” Adams said. “It’s sometimes tough when people don’t see the seriousness of it.”

Out of the about 250 municipalities in the state, only 40 have insect surveillance and control programs, MacGregor said, adding that cost can be a prohibitive factor. Professional mosquito surveillance can cost $5,000 to $10,000 and adding control on top of that nudges the price tag anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000, depending on the scope.

“It’s not cheap,” she said. “With it comes permits, regulations and cooperation among residents to allow control in their community. It’ll be a battle in some towns, and I’m amazed when I talk to people, some haven’t even heard of Zika.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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