With the warm weather and recent rains, Lowcountry residents are bracing for the arrival of summer’s biggest menace: the mosquito. The rampant spread of Zika has made a potential onslaught of the blood-sucking little buggers especially troubling this year.
As of June 3, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) had reported one confirmed case of Zika, a virus spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito. The individual had contracted the virus while traveling overseas and was not contagious by the time they returned home, DHEC officials said.
To date, all 618 reported cases of Zika in the United States have been travel-associated. No mosquitoes carrying the virus have been found anywhere in this country. But experts warn the start of mosquito season could likely lead to a local transmission.
“It’s only a matter of time before a mosquito carrying the virus crosses the continent and infects someone here in the United States,” said Dr. Kent Stock, an infectious disease specialist at Beaufort Memorial Hospital and Charleston’s Roper St. Francis Hospital. “It’s a significant threat.”
The World Health Organization has estimated Zika virus will infect 3 to 4 million people in the Western hemisphere by year’s end. There is no vaccine for the disease. The best way to prevent it is by avoiding mosquito bites, because the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus—the mosquitoes responsible for the spread of Zika in South America and the Caribbean—both reside in this area of the country.
“At this time, there is no immediate risk in the Lowcountry,” Stock said. “But we should all be taking steps to eradicate water sources where mosquitoes can breed.”
Symptoms of Zika—fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis or headache—are usually mild and last just a few days to a week. Most people infected with the virus never experience symptoms and may not even realize they have the disease.
However, the biggest health concern is for pregnant women who can pass the virus to their fetus. Experts recently confirmed that Zika has been linked to a birth defect that causes severe brain damage.
“Women who are considering conceiving should not travel to affected countries if it’s not necessary,” said Beaufort Memorial board-certified OB-GYN Dr. Claude Tolbert. “If they must go, they should protect themselves with mosquito repellant containing DEET, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and try to stay in air conditioned areas.”
He also suggested similar precautions be taken this summer in the Lowcountry.
“Right now, the best approach we can take to prevent an outbreak of Zika is to make it as inhospitable for mosquitoes as we can,” Tolbert said. “If we’re not proactive, it could become an epidemic.”
Zika also can be transmitted sexually from an infected man to his partner. Until more is known, men who have traveled to an area with Zika should abstain from having sex with a pregnant woman or use a condom.
“Women who want to conceive should wait at least eight weeks after traveling to a Zika affected country,” Tolbert said. “If your sexual partner has been exposed, wait at least six months to have unprotected sex. The virus has been found in semen up to 62 days after blood has tested negative for Zika.”
Tolbert also advised pregnant women to talk to their healthcare provider if they or their male sex partner recently traveled to an area with Zika, even if they don’t feel sick.
“We don’t know at what point in pregnancy the baby is most at risk,” he said, “so it’s best not to take any chances.”