In Texas, the Zika virus hasn’t had quite the impact as it has had in Florida or parts of Latin and South America. But the state has been vigilant in fighting the virus – with efforts like public awareness campaigns and mosquito repellent distribution to low-income mothers through Medicaid.
On Tuesday, a panel of health experts discussed the ways Texas and residents can continue preventing the spread of Zika even into the winter. The conversation was organized by the Texas Tribune and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.
For everyday people, preventing Zika boils down to what Christopher Frei calls the “Three D’s:”
- Drain water around your house.
- Dress in long sleeves or long pants if you’re going to be outdoors.
- Use insect repellent containing DEET.
Zika prevention needs to be more robust, longer-term
Frei is an associate professor and division head for the Department of Pharmacotherapy at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy as well as the gubernatorial appointee to the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response. Frei and his three co-panelists agreed Zika prevention needs to be more robust and longer-term.
They proposed a few efforts, which include providing patients with faster diagnoses, developing a long-term vaccine and better funding an initiative called, “vector control,” which involves local health departments assessing mosquito populations and the types of diseases they may carry.
"And they determine the types of programs that are the most appropriate. Are there local spraying efforts that need to be ramped up in certain areas? Are there areas where they're seeing a large number of tires that need be removed that are collecting water? Basically, targeting the areas that may be at higher risk of breeding mosquitos is part of their management strategy,” said Dr. Jade Le, an assistant professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and an infectious disease specialist.
Health experts say vector control is expensive. Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control gave out $25 million to states based on their risk for Zika transmission, and Texas received $1.5 million. Across the state, there have been more than 230 reported cases of Zika – nearly 40 in Dallas County and 23 in Tarrant County. And the panelists Tuesday said that kind of federal funding is not enough.
“We’re fighting this with resources from our own cities and our own counties and not getting the federal dollars that we should have, so we’re fighting this battle but we’re fighting a battle with this mosquito that’s very elusive and very challenging,” said Zachary Thompson, who is the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.
Texas will work through Zika, like it did Ebola and West Nile
The panelists said the costs of need to be put into perspective. Christopher Frei said while Zika prevention is costly, the cost of caring for Zika complications is much higher – like microcephaly, a birth defect where an infant’s head is smaller than expected, often due to abnormal brain development.
“To put a dollar figure to it, the March of Dimes believes that the lifetime cost of caring for a child with microcephaly is around $10 million,” Frei said. “So if you want to look at cost, the cost of the complications are really the costs we'll pay for if we don’t invest the funds in prevention right now.”
Myra Crownover is a Republican state representative who represents parts of Denton County and is also the chair of the House Public Health Committee. She said while the proposed measures are good ideas, not everyone will be satisfied.
“If we do vector control, there will be a group that’s wanting to protect the mosquitos. There’s always a group – just like if we come up with a vaccine, we’ll have the groups out there that still believe vaccines cause autism. So we have the ‘anti-vax’ people, we have the ‘save the mosquitos,’ ‘save the birds’ people. It’s very hard,” Crownover said.
The takeaway from the panel, aside from the importance of prevention, was that while Zika will continue to be a concern this winter – even after mosquito season – Texas is a resilient state. It will work through Zika the way it worked through West Nile and Ebola.