State, Harford health officials stress prevention as key to stopping Zika virus

A woman holds multiple fact sheets on the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases during a town hall meeting in Bel Air Monday on preventing Zika.
A woman holds multiple fact sheets on the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases during a town hall meeting in Bel Air Monday on preventing Zika. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

With more than 800 cases of the Zika virus diagnosed in the U.S. – 26 of them in Maryland – Harford County and state health officials want residents to have as much information possible about the mosquito-borne disease and how to prevent it.

The mosquitos that transmit the virus are found throughout Maryland, a state health official warned.


"It's so important for us to get accurate information, to disseminate correct information to the public, find out what you can do to prevent Zika," Harford County Health Officer Susan Kelly said during a town hall meeting held Monday afternoon in the County Council chambers in Bel Air.

Nearly 100 people, including Harford County employees, representatives of emergency services and the school system, as well as concerned citizens, attended the 90-minute forum.


Zika, which is known for causing birth defects, has been spreading through South America, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, American territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands, and now the continental U.S., since the current outbreak started in Brazil in late 2015.

It can be spread either when a mosquito carrying the virus bites a human, or it can be transmitted sexually from one person to another.

People heard from Kelly, as well as David Reiher, supervisor of rabies and vector control for the health department, Tony DeWitt, an agricultural inspector with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, who is in charge of mosquito control for Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, and Dr. Howard Haft, deputy secretary for public health in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"It is my absolute pleasure to be here and help engage and inform you about this very unique disorder," said Haft, who has been visiting other parts of the state to educate the public about Zika.

The disease was discovered in primates in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947, and it was first seen in humans in 1952, Haft said.

It is rarely fatal, and most people only suffer mild symptoms, but pregnant women and their babies have been suffering the most – infected mothers can spread the disease to their developing fetuses, causing birth defects, the worst of which is microcephaly.

Babies who are born with microcephaly have smaller-than-expected heads, the result of the fetus' brains shrinking, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web page.

"This infection, when it occurs during pregnancy, causes a devastating effect on the brain," Haft said.

Other potential birth defects include blindness, deafness, intellectual impairments, cerebral palsy, seizures and autism spectrum disorders, he said.

Haft, along with Kelly, stressed the confirmed cases in Maryland have been in people who have traveled to counties affected by the outbreak, or they have contracted it through unprotected sex.

Haft noted Zika is not yet spreading locally, meaning local mosquitoes carrying the illness are not yet biting people.

He said about one in five people carrying the disease have symptoms, and those symptoms are usually mild, such as a low-grade fever, rash or pink eye.


Haft said specific treatments are not available, and it could be years before anti-Zika treatments are approved.

"Prevention is the most important thing," he said.

Zika is typically spread by two species of mosquitoes – Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus – neither of which is native to the Western Hemisphere, but they do live in the U.S. The Aedes albopictus is also known as the Asian tiger mosquito, according to Haft.

"There are really your backyard, neighborhood mosquitoes," he said.

DeWitt said there are about 62 species of mosquitoes in Maryland, including the invasive Aedes species. They either lay their eggs in stagnant pools of water or, in the Aedes' case, lay them on surfaces where they think water will show up.

He said mosquitoes lay eggs in large, natural or semi-natural settings such as marshes, springs or stormwater management ponds, or small pools of water in holes in tree trunks, tires, birdbaths, gutters, or kiddie swimming pools.

DeWitt and his staff use insecticide to control mosquitoes when asked to deal with them.

He noted that "absolutely the most effective thing" to prevent mosquitoes, though, is to remove any container that can hold water from your yard, or dump out the water and scrub the container on a regular basis.

"It really is a community cleanup kind of thing that is going to keep Zika out of our communities," he said.

More information about Zika is available online at http://phpa.dhmh.maryland.gov/pages/zika.aspx, or at http://harfordcountyhealth.com. Contact DeWitt regarding mosquito control at 410-841-5870 or anthony.dewitt@maryland.gov, or contact the county health department at 410-838-1500.

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