The Zika virus has been in the news for months, but Dr. Rahul Gupta didn’t have to read the headlines.
Gupta, who leads the state’s public health care efforts, had already been hard at work learning about the mosquito transmitted illness and developing a way to combat its effects in West Virginia.
There have already been 11 confirmed cases in West Virginia.
But all involved individuals who had traveled abroad to areas where the virus is more common. One case is a pregnant woman who got sick after traveling outside the country on a missions trip.
While there haven’t been any reported cases of anyone becoming infected locally from a mosquito bite, it’s still important to be aware of this potential danger, he said.
That’s because there have been 43 locally acquired mosquito-borne cases reported nationally, all in Florida, including two areas in Miami with active transmission of the Zika virus, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“We have these types of mosquitos in our state, but so far none of them have been found to be carrying the Zika virus,” he said.
Doctors have linked the virus to an alarming increase in cases of babies born with a birth defect known as microcephaly. Infants with this condition tend to have smaller-than-normal-heads caused when the brain doesn’t develop properly.
As state Chief Health Officer, he’s partnered with others to form the Zika Task Force whose members include representatives from the Division of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Protection and county health departments.
County health departments have been on the front line of doing mosquito surveillance. They go into the field to collect insects from May to October. The dead specimens are then sent for viral testing, according to Gupta.
“It’s to set traps so we can monitor and test the mosquitos for certain viruses that we feel are potentially a threat in West Virginia,” he said.
This is important work since mosquitos in some state counties previously tested positive for West Niles Virus.
Ongoing state efforts also include the creation of a Zika Action Plan. It includes a website – zikawv.org – that’s aimed at educating residents as well as health care providers by providing state and national updates.
Videos are available on the website dealing with Zika related topics such as preventative steps, pregnancy impacts and travel concerns.
“Now is not the time to panic, but rather to make sure we are prepared,” he said.
Since summer is still in full swing, the best prevention is to avoid mosquito bites as much as possible. That also includes eliminating breeding spots such as standing or stagnant water, wearing long sleeves and long pants when going outside and avoiding peak mosquito hours, typically around dawn and dusk.