Originally written for Medill News Service.
Buffalo Bayou in Houston, TX. Houston's Harris county has the most confirmed Zika virus cases of any county in Texas. KELLY CALAGNA/MEDILL.
With the Zika virus on the rise and mosquito season in full swing across the South, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is amping up its efforts in preparation for the worst.
At 55 confirmed Zika cases, Texas has the fourth most reported cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The state stands behind New York with 285 confirmed cases, Florida with 206 and California with 69.
The Texas DSHS reports that 54 of the Zika cases were in travelers who were infected abroad, while the remaining patient contracted the virus from sexual contact with a Zika carrier. No cases have been confirmed as being locally transmitted, however, officials have organized a Zika Virus Preparedness and Response Plan in preparation of the looming possibility that Zika may spread to local mosquito populations.
On Wednesday, the Texas DSHS held a statewide summit, called the State of Texas Active Response to Zika (STARZ) Conference, where local leaders, health experts and emergency management converged “to hash out how they would really respond to local transmission,” said Carrie Williams, director of media relations for the Texas DSHS, in a press release. “We had more than 400 people attend the summit. It was exceedingly successful and [an] unprecedented collaborative effort before Zika arrives,” said Williams.
Smaller scale precautions are also being taken by local parks and recreation areas. In Harris county, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center has begun providing visitors mosquito repellant and is suggesting the use of long sleeves and pants in an “attempt to get ahead of the game in case anything [comes] down the line,” said Christine Mansfield, an associate at the Houston Arboretum. The Arboretum hosts multiple children’s camps throughout the summer, and “we wanted to make sure that if parents did have any concerns, they knew we were taking precautions,” said Mansfield. Harris county currently holds the state’s highest number of Zika cases at 16.
While mosquitos are the major concern in the spread of the virus, another pressing threat is human-to-human contraction. Most people who are infected with the Zika virus have mild or no symptoms, according to the Texas DSHS website. Infected individuals can unknowingly pass the virus on to nursing children or sexual partners.
Though the virus is not an immediate threat to the lives of the hosts, it can severely affect the development of a fetus being carried by a pregnant host. According to the CDC, Zika has been linked to causing microcephaly, a birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
At this time, only one confirmed Texas Zika victim has been pregnant wile infected with the virus. However, the Texas DSHS reports that “there have been 28 additional pregnancies in Texas with laboratory evidence of Zika infection since tracking and testing for Zika began.” The department explains that flaviviruses, diseases such as Zika, dengue and West Nile, “are known to cross-react during confirmatory testing, making it difficult to determine if the person was infected with Zika or some other flavivirus.” However, none of the 28 women exhibited symptoms meeting the Zika virus definition, and therefore were not diagnosed as Zika cases.
With the threat of local contraction on the rise, officials are being proactive with addressing any potential incidents. “We expect to see some level of local transmission in the state,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, Texas DSHS commissioner, in a press release, “and Texas is at the forefront and ready.”