Baltimore County officials are taking steps to raise awareness about the Zika virus, a disease that has caused birth defects in infants in South America since an outbreak began on that continent last year.
Although all 16 cases of the Zika virus thus-far identified in Maryland have been travel-related, residents can take steps to help protect themselves from the disease, should mosquitoes in the United States begin to carry it, county and state health officials said.
Officials of the Baltimore County health department hold a weekly conference call with those of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to discuss the latest information on Zika, according to county health department spokeswoman Monique Lyle. In addition, state health officials are in constant contact with those of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta.
Lyle said the county also works with the Maryland Department of Agriculture to monitor mosquito activity in the county.
"The Agriculture department regularly conducts surveillance for mosquitoes, in cooperation with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to determine if they are present and in certain cases, if they are carrying diseases like Zika or West Nile Virus," officials of the state agriculture department stated in a press release April 26. "Those efforts will be enhanced in light of Zika."
State officials also have been in contact with hospitals to provide updated information on the disease and what questions patients might ask, said state health department spokesman Chris Garrett.
"We're always trying to keep up to speed," said John Lazarou, spokesman for Greater Baltimore Medical Center, in Towson. "We definitely have our ears open."
According to the CDC, Zika is a virus which can often go undetected; symptoms can be mild and include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. In pregnant women, the disease can be passed along to the child and is associated with a condition called microcephaly, where a child is born with a head that is smaller than normal. It also can be passed from person to person through mosquito bites, and a man can pass it to his partner through unprotected sex.
On its website (www.cdc.gov/zika), the CDC has a detailed list of areas in South and Central America where active mosquito transmission of the virus exists.
Maryland health officials conducted a Zika Awareness Week at the end of April to raise public awareness of the disease. Officials are asking people to be aware of standing water on their properties in which mosquitos can breed, Garrett said. Containers that contain pooling water should be turned over.
Garrett said the state health department distributed 1,250 Zika kits to the Baltimore County health department, which included mosquito repellent, condoms and larvicide, which can be dropped into pools to kill young mosquitos. Consumers also can easily find those items at retail stores.
Detailed precautions and tips for preventing Zika are available on the state's website, http://phpa.dhmh.maryland.gov/pages/zika.aspx.