Health experts still figuring out Zika

A panel of health experts from Florida International University discusses the Zika outbreak that is spreading in South America and the Caribbean on Feb. 3.
A panel of health experts from Florida International University discusses the Zika outbreak that is spreading in South America and the Caribbean on Feb. 3.

No one's clear what impact, if any, the mosquito-borne virus Zika will have on South Florida, but preventing bug bites for now is the best defense against the disease, which is strongly suspected to be linked to a rash of birth defects in South America and the Caribbean.

And one of the most effective methods of protecting yourself from getting bitten is to use a mosquito repellent with the chemical DEET, which many people are reluctant to use because of its smell and perceived health issues.

"Whether you like it or not, it's still better not to get sick," said Matthew DeGennaro, a mosquito expert and an assistant professor of biology at Florida International University. "It is a very, very, very safe repellent."

DeGennaro was speaking on a panel with five colleagues during a discussion Wednesday on the FIU campus about the growing Zika threat.

The only caveat DeGennaro had about DEET is that children under 2 years old shouldn't use it. That's because kids that age tend to put their hands and feet into their mouths a lot.

"The reason it's not recommended for children under 2 is because DEET is not great when you ingest it," DeGennaro said. "That's why it's not useful in very young children."

There have been only a handful of cases of Zika in the United States so far, and all were acquired abroad. And while the virus, transmitted through the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, is a likely cause of microcephaly, there has only been one reported case in the U.S. of the birth defect, which causes babies to be born with damaged and smaller-than-normal brains. That baby was born in Hawaii to a mother likely infected in Brazil.

Also, even in Brazil -- thought to ground zero for the recent outbreak -- while cases of babies born with microcephaly have skyrocketed, they pale in comparison to the number of healthy births.

"There are a lot of babies born in Brazil without microcephaly," said Dr. Consuelo Beck-Sague, a pediatrician and assistant professor of public health at FIU.

Since locally acquired Zika was first reported in Brazil, the number of microcephaly cases has surged in the country. Before 2014, there was an average of around 150 cases a year. But between October 2015 and January, there have been more than 3,500 babies born with the condition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the lack of a conclusive link between Zika and microcephaly, Dr. Aileen M. Marty, a medical professor at FIU, said the disease is among a group of viruses that has "a love for neurological tissue."

Health experts theorize one reason why Zika is spreading so rapidly in the Caribbean and South America is because of increased urbanization among poorer populations in those countries. While doctors and scientists brace for its impact here, factors like screened windows and air conditioning may be reasons why the disease hopefully never gains a foothold here.

Nevertheless, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a health emergency Wednesday because there have now been 12 cases of Zika in the state. Four of those cases are in Miami-Dade County, two are in Hillsborough County, two are in Lee County and one is in Santa Rosa County. All were infected while traveling in South America and the Caribbean.

An unidentified person in Dallas, Texas, likely contracted the virus through sex, health officials in that state announced Tuesday. The person's partner recently returned to the U.S. from Venezuela.

For now though, the primary segment of the population health officials are particularly concerned with protecting is pregnant women. For the rest, a Zika infection mostly presents symptoms similar to the flu -- fever, aches and pains. Other symptoms include conjunctivitis, or pink eye, and rash. These symptoms typically only last a few days to a week.

"At this time, we've only seen complications with people with underlying conditions, other than mothers and babies," Marty said.

Another important way to protect yourself, and neighbors, from the Aedes aegypti -- also known to spread dengue fever and chikungunya -- is to empty any standing water in your yard and in your house.

In the meantime, health officials warn not to panic, and not to rush to your doctor and hospitals to be tested, especially if you otherwise feel healthy.

Dr. Jefry Biehler, chairman of pediatrics at FIU, said he's concerned "Zika is going to be the latest test du jour" and people here will flock to their doctors' offices and emergency rooms like they did when Ebola ravaged parts of Western Africa.

His colleague Dr. Robert Levine, chairman of FIUs department of emergency medicine, agreed: "It's much more important to get immunized for the flu."