Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen discusses guidelines to Zika virus prevention at a press conference. (Andrea McDaniels / Baltimore Sun)
As mosquito season nears, the heads of Baltimore's departments of health, housing and public works unveiled efforts Tuesday to help prevent mosquito-borne illnesses, including Zika, which can lead to birth defects.
Led by Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, city officials outlined plans to try and keep Baltimore free of trash, clear storm drains and look for improper grading at the city's public housing complexes that can lead to free-standing water where mosquitoes breed.
There are also efforts to educate residents about how to protect themselves from mosquito bites, the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus. There is no cure for the disease, though scientists around the world are working on a vaccine.
Officials urged residents to use mosquito repellent and remove free-standing water from near their homes. A soda cap of water is enough for a mosquito to lay eggs, several said.
The Mayor's Office of Human Services, Baltimore Housing, the Department of Public Works and the Johns Hopkins Center for Salud/Health and Opportunity for Latinos are involved in what was described as an all-hands-on-deck effort to prevent the spread of Zika.
There have been 119 Zika cases across the United States this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there have been 24 cases this year in Maryland and four in the Baltimore metro area. The CDC and the state report cases differently. The CDC only reports cases when people show symptoms, while the state also includes people who did not present symptoms.
There have been 15 cases in the Baltimore area since Zika was first detected in 2015, according to the city health department. All of the Maryland cases were travel-related and not contracted in the state.
No mosquitoes carrying Zika have reached the state. It is unclear if that will be the case this year, said Wen, adding that the city is preparing in case that changes.
"The situation with Zika is so quickly evolving," Wen said. "It is hard for us to predict what will happen."
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Most people have mild or no obvious effects from the mosquito-borne illness, but Zika infections in pregnant women can result in major birth defects in their babies, including microcephaly, which stunts brain growth.
Wen, who is expecting a baby this summer, said that pregnant women should be careful about traveling to areas where Zika-infected mosquitoes have been found, including Puerto Rico, where 458 cases have been confirmed this year. Couples should use condoms after traveling to these areas because the disease has been found to be sexually transmitted
Research has also found that adults infected with Zika can suffer from heart problems, vision issues and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nervous system disorder that can lead to temporary paralysis.