First travel-related Zika case of 2017 reported

There have been fewer headlines about Zika virus since the World Health Organization declassified it as a crisis in November, but health officials say it’s still a threat.

The first travel-related case of 2017 in Monroe County was reported Monday by the state Department of Health. Public Information Officer Alison Morales Kerr said she could not release whether the person was still in Monroe County, but Beth Ranson, public information officer for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said mosquito control efforts have increased in Key West.

There have been no locally acquired cases in the Florida Keys, yet there were 10 travel-related — contracted outside the U.S. — cases in 2016.

Ranson said it’s the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika and other viruses that need to be monitored and suppressed locally. Zika causes flu-like symptoms and often the person who has it doesn’t know. It can cause the newborns of infected pregnant women to be born with shrunken skulls.

Lower temperatures and the arrival of dry season in South Florida have caused mosquitoes to be less active. When spring arrives and activity increases, there will still be a need for a trial release of genetically modified mosquitoes, Ranson said.

Pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, millions of mosquitoes will be released by British biotech company Oxitec, which says the offspring of its mosquitoes do not hatch, resulting in a smaller population of mosquitoes.

“Mosquitoes are showing resistance to chemicals and without new chemicals being in the pipeline it is a concern. If we don’t have a way to control them and we do have a case of locally acquired Zika, we will need those tools and that includes Oxitec’s mosquitoes,” Ranson said.

Others still disagree about the need for the trial, like Dina Schoneck, chairwoman of the Key West-based group Citizens for Safe Science. The group, which she said has been somewhat inactive lately, is waiting to see what happens in the coming months.

“There isn’t a Zika emergency anymore and I still stand by the fact that it’s not necessary to release them. We have better options,” Schoneck said, like Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes.

Aedes aegypti bugs are not naturally infected with Wolbachia, so if a female mates with a male that has Wolbachia, her eggs will not hatch, according to Dr. Stephen Dobson, founder and CEO of biotech company MosquitoMate.

His company, working through the University of Kentucky, has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to release males infected with Wolbachia, which infects 60 percent of insects and is not known to harm humans.

Ranson said MosquitoMate officials will be at the Tuesday Mosquito Control Board meeting for a workshop on the the Keys Wolbachia trial. The workshop starts at 12:30 p.m. at Mosquito Control’s building at 503 107th St. bayside and will be followed by the board meeting.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219

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