Summer is coming, will Zika follow?
© Getty

Across the nation and the globe, millions of people are preparing for summer travel. At the same time, mosquito-borne infectious diseases like Zika can reemerge as the weather warms. It's a dangerous combination.

And yet, with appropriate caution and public awareness, illness or outbreak can be prevented.

ADVERTISEMENT

Last summer, when Zika emerged as a local threat in Florida and Texas, Americans recognized the risk and worked with local and federal government agencies to control the outbreak. This summer, we're even better prepared and better protected, if we remain vigilant.

 

A successful fight that must continue

Like most viruses, there is no cure for Zika. Fortunately, our immune system is extremely effective at fighting the disease, and symptoms — fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis—are usually both mild and rare.

Zika tends to have an attraction to brain tissue, and for a small number of adults, there have been serious symptoms that included neurological damage. However, the greatest concern from Zika remains its potential to cause brain damage and other defects in babies still in the womb.

From the recent outbreak, we now know that when a pregnant mother contracts Zika virus, the risk to her child is unacceptably high. According to the U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry, since 2016 more than 1,471 babies have been born to U.S. mothers who had contracted Zika. Of those, 64 children were born with birth defects, and eight additional babies with birth defects failed to survive.

That risk motivated a powerful, global response, and there has been great progress in culling the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes that transmit Zika both here in the U.S. and in nations where the most recent outbreak has been worst.

A number of local and federal agencies have also marshaled tremendous resources for helping citizens limit Zika exposure, including continuously updated travel alerts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, the virus is still present. Even as Brazil announces an end to their Zika public health emergency, the virus remains in that nation, and everywhere else it has emerged. Americans must continue to stay well-informed about Zika, and careful not to misinterpret success at slowing the disease as being an eradication of it.

Transmission remains more common than many realize, precisely because symptoms are rare. After infection, immunity follows, but an individual can still pass the virus via sexual activity or through pregnancy for six months following infection.

As more people develop immunity, eventually the worst impacts of the disease will hopefully fade — which we've seen with West Nile virus in the U.S. However, Zika is not our only threat.

Beyond Zika

In 2014, the stage was set for a terrifying viral epidemic when Ebola began spreading beyond control in Africa. For the first time, the virus spread to the U.S. and Europe, though a major international response prevented wider catastrophe.

Zika is not Ebola, but the practices that saved lives in both outbreaks are invaluable. The international coordination, comprehensive monitoring at national and local levels, and best practices from physicians and patients alike prevented those outbreaks from becoming full-scale global epidemics.

Those best practices must not fade, especially in periods with few outbreaks. If that infrastructure disappears, it cannot be instantly rebuilt, and viruses cannot be contained.

That holds true even if a disease is not shocking and new — influenza has been with us for millennia, and even common strains of flu kill more Americans every year than Zika and Ebola likely ever will. Flu virus constantly mutates, and regularly jumps from swine and poultry in forms our human immune systems are unprepared to handle.

As an infectious disease specialist at Orlando Health, I monitor such strains, and one I'm watching closely at the moment is H7N9. It emerged in China in poultry and was first reported jumping to humans in 2013. China is currently experiencing its 5th epidemic of the disease, the largest to date.

Preparing for a safe summer

Clearly, whether at home or traveling abroad, Americans must remain aware of disease risks, and how best to keep from getting sick.

Domestically, that means staying up to date on vaccinations and local health alerts, including reminders to clear away stagnant water or to wear insect repellant.

If traveling to a country with a CDC travel alert, a call to one's doctor is a must. Again, vaccinations will likely be necessary, but guidance may also include ensuring hotels have air conditioned rooms (to avoid mosquitos entering through windows at night) or a mosquito net if one only has the option of sleeping out in the open.

And for Americans who are pregnant, or who plan to be, all of the precautions surrounding Zika remain.

No one ever wants to get sick, but attention spans are short, which is why my team at Orlando Health is working to keep the public informed. Zika will be present this summer, but if federal resources remain available, local and regional governments keep public health experts out in force, and everyone keeps infectious disease in mind, terrifying outbreaks need not become devastating epidemics.

Dr. Antonio Crespo is a member of the Infectious Disease Group at Orlando Health. Crespo is a board certified physician who focuses on understanding and treating a wide range of infectious diseases, including Zika.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.