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Health officials prepare to deal with Zika

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The Virginia Department of Health and Virginia hospitals say they are ready to respond to the Zika virus, using procedures they honed during another health threat, the deadly Ebola outbreak.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Marissa J. Levine, however, says the public’s cooperation is key to preventing the spread of the mosquito-borne virus in Virginia.

“We are concerned about the Zika virus because people do not know everything they need to know,” Levine said at a Richmond news conference on Wednesday.

The health commissioner said 38 Zika cases have been reported in Virginia while more than 1,100 patients with the virus have been seen throughout the U.S. There is no vaccine for Zika, which is relatively new to the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to being transmitted by mosquito bites, the virus also can be contracted through sexual intercourse.

All of the cases in Virginia involve people who have traveled to areas south of the U.S. where Zika virus is present, Levine said.

With many people traveling during the summer, Levine urged Virginians to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. While symptoms of the illness are relatively mild for adults, Zika infection poses a serious threat to pregnant women. The virus can cause microcephaly and other birth defects in babies. Babies with microcephaly have small heads and often have brains that might not have developed properly.

Never before have mosquito bites caused birth defects, Levine said.

Travelers headed to the Caribbean, Central America and South America are asked to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to see where Zika is present. The CDC cautions pregnant women to avoid travel to these countries.

“I think it is just a matter of time before the Zika virus is in the mosquitoes in Virginia, but I don’t know exactly when that would happen,” Levine said.

Virginia's Department of General Services’ Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services said on Wednesday it will begin testing mosquitoes in targeted areas across Virginia for Zika.

Only two types of mosquitos carry the virus and they tend to travel only 150 to 200 yards from where they lay their eggs, typically in containers with water.

Precautions to prevent the spread of Zika include: using EPA-registered insect repellent; wearing long sleeves and pants; tipping standing water containers where eggs can be laid; tossing debris where it collects; using prophylactics during sexual intercourse; and seeking immediate attention if you have Zika symptoms.

Those symptoms include: a fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye.

At the news conference, Mary N. Mannix, president and CEO of Augusta Health in Fishersville and chair of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said her association and the Virginia Department of Health have worked together to prepare for emerging health threats since 2002.

The Hospital Preparedness Program is coordinated throughregional hospital hubs. In addition to planning health care for affected patients in an emergency, the program also involves supplies, training and equipment.

Mannix said the system was readied during the Ebola crisis and it “can be called upon to respond to Zika.” A primary focus of that response will be helping mothers and their babies who have contracted the virus. There is a possibility, however, that Zika can cause other diseases, Levine said.

Robin Manke, director of emergency management at VCU Health System, said she saw this system swing into action early last year when she became violently ill after returning from West Africa.  She was treated for a possible Ebola infection at VCU. Tests, however, revealed she did not have the disease.


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