Public Response to Zika Varies from Apathy to Fear

With the number of local cases of the Zika virus growing in South Florida, are most of us worried enough to personally change our behaviors? Recent surveys nationwide have shown that most Americans are actually not concerned despite the danger of a serious birth defect and a still developing understanding of other health risks.

Repeated calls by health officials over the past several months for the public to use common-sense prevention steps like insect repellent may be going unheeded elsewhere. However, with Zika-carrying mosquitoes literally in some of our back yards, South Florida residents are now more alarmed than most. Federal and state health officials are hoping that a healthy concern among South Floridians will translate into actions among residents to help prevent further spread of the virus.

As of Aug. 9, health officials report 21 locally transmitted cases of Zika in South Florida, most of them in Miami-Dade. For the first time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning to pregnant women to avoid travel to a specific area within the continental United States. All of the new cases came from the Wynwood neighborhood north of downtown Miami.

Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that cause the virus are serial biters and can infect multiple hosts. The disease can also be spread when another mosquito bites an infected person and through sexual contact. Because about 80 percent of people who contract the virus don’t show any symptoms, they could spread the disease without knowing it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 1,800 cases of Zika in the United States, the vast majority of them travel-related.

Human apathy and mosquito stealth has likely contributed to the spread of Zika, experts say. Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes bite during daylight hours, usually at dawn and dusk. Fully adapted to human behavior, experts say they are known to attack from behind, biting ankles and elbows where we are least likely to swat them away.

Apathy or Concern?

Despite months of government warnings and media reports about Zika, results of a Washington Post-ABC News survey earlier this summer showed that two-thirds of Americans were not worried that they or a member of their families would contract the virus. Likewise, two-thirds said they were not personally taking steps to prevent it. Only half of those who were taking steps planned to use insect repellent. Experts had predicted that Zika cases would increase dramatically this summer, primarily because we had not begun to view the virus as a serious threat to ourselves and our families.

Paul Di Capua, M.D., an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care Family Medicine Center at West Kendall Baptist Hospital, says that his patients are concerned about the risks of Zika infection and with good reason.

“We have other mosquito viruses, but this one is particularly scary, because it can create irreversible harm in our most vulnerable,” Dr. Di Capua says. Zika can cause microcephaly in developing fetuses, which prevents the brain from fully developing.

He says that many of his patients are also concerned about the unknown ‒ how to tell if they have it and unanswered questions about its effects.

Zika can cause flu-like symptoms and fever, rash, joint pain and sometimes conjunctivitis or pink eye, he says.

“We just don’t know a lot right now. We do know this virus has been around for 60 years, first discovered in 1947. We know that for a long time it was circulating in small populations in Africa,” Dr. Di Capua says. “Then seemingly all of a sudden it spread throughout the world, and it’s taken on this new capacity to create abnormalities in newborns.”

Although researchers are not certain, Zika has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that affects the nervous system which can cause muscle weakness and paralysis.

“This seems to be the tip of the iceberg as far as understanding the consequences of Zika,” he says.

Taking Preventive Measures

Rather than worrying, Dr. Di Capua is encouraging his patients to put the risks into perspective while adding basic preventive measures to their daily routines.

“We don’t live in Brazil where risks are higher. Comparatively the risk of problems from this virus are actually low.”

At the same time, he says, the virus is spreading. Local governments acknowledge that their efforts to kill the insects by spraying neighborhoods has been helpful, but not completely effective. The best way to slow the spread of Zika is to make an effort to protect themselves and their families.

Repellent and behavior are our primary personal defense against the mosquitoes that cause the virus, Dr. Di Capua says.

Pregnant women and their partners should heed travel warnings and avoid visiting areas where the virus is present and spreading. Women who are considering getting pregnant and their partners should also stay away from impacted areas. If you’re concerned about possible exposure or symptoms, see your doctor.

In addition, everyone should cover up when possible. Wear long sleeves and long pants.

Using the Proper Repellents

The CDC recommends using insect repellents that contain DEET and picaridin, which are most effective against mosquitoes. Consumer Reports recently released results of its testing of a number of brands. It found that the best products for repelling mosquitoes that cause ZIKA contained 25 percent DEET (Off! Deepwoods VIII) and 20 percent picaridin (Sawyer Picaridin and Natrapel 8), and lasted up to eight hours.

Consumers should also pay attention to the amount of these active ingredients. The magazine found that products containing more than 30 percent DEET did not work better. Too much could result in serious health effects. Higher concentrations have caused rashes, seizures and disorientation in some people.

Products containing small amounts of these ingredients were not effective against Zika. Nor were products that contained natural ingredients including lemongrass oil, citronella and rosemary oil.

Finally, remember to follow safety guidelines when applying insect repellents.

  • Use only enough to cover your skin.
  • If applying to your face, spray on your hands first and rub it in. Avoid your eyes and mouth.
  • Do not apply on cuts or irritated skin.
  • Don’t allow young children to apply repellent. Put it on your hands and rub it on.
  • Wash your hands before eating or drinking.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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