It’s been a little more than a year since Sakshi Puri, with the Hidalgo County Health Department, gave an excellent presentation on Zika to our RGV Equal Voice Network Health Working Group.

The dilemma we all shared on this subject was how to get information out to the public without causing panic. Both Hidalgo and Cameron County Health Departments were working on the issue, and we were being flooded with pictures of babies in Brazil born with microencephaly. The arrival of the disease to the Rio Grande Valley seemed imminent. After all, the mosquito that served as a carrier (aedes aegypti) was common in our region.

The working group created and began to implement a plan to get information out to the community. Happily, a year later, Hidalgo County and Cameron County have seen primarily travel- related Zika patients. Disturbingly, there is still much work to be done in educating the public on how to protect their loved ones from infection.

Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito, though it can also spread by sexual contact. The four most common symptoms are fever, itchy rash, joint pain and eye redness. While symptoms are usually minor, Zika can also cause severe birth defects, including microcephaly, and other poor birth outcomes in some women infected during pregnancy. It is recommended that pregnant women follow CDC advice to avoid traveling to locations with sustained, local Zika transmission, including all areas of Mexico. We now have labs in Texas to identify the virus.

To avoid the spread of Zika, the following prevention methods are recommended:

  • Apply EPA-approved mosquito repellent that contains DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide), picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Spray exposed skin and clothing with repellent. Be sure to read label instructions on any repellent and use as directed.
  • Use air conditioning or window/door screens in good repair to keep mosquitoes outside. Stay indoors to prevent mosquito bites. Consider getting a mosquito bed net for over your bed, available at most stores.
  • Dress protectively by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, and shoes when you are outside.
  • Remove standing water in and around homes year-round. Drain standing water in your backyard and neighborhood. Remove standing water in cans, bottles, buckets, tires, wheel barrows or any container that can hold water, including water in trash cans, toys, tires, and flower pots. Cover trash cans or containers where water can collect. It only takes the amount of water that a thimble could contain to help the mosquitoes breed. This is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone needs to check around the outside of their home constantly for standing water. Everyone needs to be on the lookout for illegal dumping. To report mosquito concerns or illegal dumping n Hidalgo County, please call (956) 681-3111.
  • Use protection during sex especially if your partner traveled to an area with Zika or if you are pregnant or considering getting pregnant. [Pope Francis has issued permission for this in order to prevent zika infected children.] Women and men who are considering starting or expanding their family should talk to their healthcare provider to inform their decisions about timing of pregnancy.

With the help of a grant from the University of Texas Houston School of Public Health in Brownsville, the RGV Equal Voice Network Health Working Group is distributing information to residents of colonias and trailer parks, and conducting workshops on Zika. They are giving flyers to faith communities to distribute through their church bulletins. Schools are also receiving informational materials to give to students. Radio and TV spots are also being conducted in English and in Spanish.

One result of having a mild winter is that the mosquito population was not killed by a freeze. With all the warm weather, and rain, the environment for breeding mosquitos is being nurtured. We need to continue to take precautions.
We continue to work with our county health departments, who have offered great information and assistance. Eddie Olivarez, Director of the Hidalgo County Health Department, and other members of his great staff, Misti Rains and epidemiologists Sakshi Puri and Steven Hinojosa, have been very generous with their time and resources.

Travelers and the general public can find more information at TexasZika.org.