Michigan Residents React to Zika

A diverse group of people begins to trickle into a conference room at the University of Michigan. A pregnant woman waddles in and takes a seat while a jittery undergraduate student debates with a friend about whether or not to cancel her trip to Brazil this summer. These Michigan residents made their way to U of M on a chilly March evening to attend a panel discussion on the Zika virus featuring epidemiologists from U of M as well as researchers from the Brazilian Ministry of Health. Even though the epicenter of the disease is over 5,000 miles away in South America, dozens of people still braced Michigan’s cold winter weather to come learn more about it.

The room quiets as Miarilia Carvalho, a researcher from the Brazilian Ministry of Health, begins to speak. Her voice is full of passion as she discusses her work with the Zika virus, and as she begins to speak with more urgency, her Brazilian accent becomes more noticeable. “Rio is now under siege,” she says, referring to the Brazilian government’s efforts to slow the spread of the Zika virus in the country’s second largest city. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, there were 4,863 cases of Zika in Brazil in March and the number is on the rise. Carvalho and her colleagues are hard at work managing the spread of Zika in Brazil before the Rio Olympics in August. A snowstorm is brewing outside of the conference room in Ann Arbor, but summer is not far off and soon the weather in Michigan will begin to resemble that of Brazil. The Zika virus typically spreads to humans via mosquitos, which thrive in Brazil’s warm climate. Throughout Michigan people are especially nervous about the upcoming mosquito season due to the insect’s link to the Zika virus. Michigan residents are modifying their travel plans, taking precautions to protect themselves from contracting Zika, and learning more about the virus by attending information session like the one held at the University of Michigan.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are currently 39 countries and territories where the Zika virus is actively spreading to humans through bites from infected mosquitos. This is the most common way humans contract Zika, but it can also be spread through sexual contact, blood transfusion, or from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth. The symptoms of the virus are typically mild and include fever, rash, and joint pain. However, earlier this month the CDC confirmed that Zika transmitted from mother to child is linked to microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than normal. Microcephaly “isn’t just small heads,” says Dr. Mark Chames, from the University of Michigan’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Chames told the crowd at U of M that symptoms of this condition include seizures, mental retardation, and other neurological issues. While the state of the Zika virus in Michigan differs greatly from that of Brazil, Michigan residents can still take steps to protect themselves from Zika leading up to the summer mosquito season.

Even though mosquitos are found throughout Michigan during the summertime, they are not the same types of mosquitos spreading the virus in Central and South America. Zika has been associated with two species of Aedes mosquitos, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. Both of these species are not found in Michigan due the cool climate, so the likelihood of getting Zika locally through mosquito transmission is extremely low. Two Michigan residents have contracted Zika since the outbreak began, but did so while travelling abroad and were not infected in Michigan.

While Michigan residents are very unlikely to contract the virus from local mosquitos, there are still ways that they can protect themselves from the disease. Zika poses the greatest threat to pregnant women, and local doctors are urging them to avoid travelling to areas where transmission via mosquitos is possible. Ingrid Todt of Rochester Hills is pregnant with her second child and planned to travel to Florida with her family in February. However, Todt says her doctor advised her to stay home after speaking to Florida-based doctors who “strongly urged him to tell pregnant patients to stay away.” Florida is one of 30 US states where Aedes mosquitos currently live. While there are no confirmed cases of Zika transmission by mosquito in the continental United States, it could occur in the future. In the end, Todt decided to stay in Michigan while the rest of her family travelled to Florida because she would “rather be safe than sorry.”

There are several precautions that Michiganders travelling to areas with

Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus can take in order to prevent Zika transmission by mosquitos. The CDC recommends wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, sleeping under a mosquito bed net, and treating clothing and gear with permethrin, a type of insecticide. The mosquitos that spread Zika are most active during the day, so travellers should be extra cautious of mosquitos at this time. Siobhan Haughey, a University of Michigan swimmer who will be representing Hong Kong at the Rio Olympics, plans to follow the CDC’s guidelines to protect herself from Zika while in Brazil. She says, “The most important thing is to protect myself from getting Zika… because [she] trained really hard,” in preparation for the games.

While people living in Michigan are not at risk for local mosquito transmission, there are several other ways that they can become infected with the Zika virus. During the Zika panel discussion, Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist from the University of Michigan who studies the Zika virus in Central America, told the audience how little researchers know about how the virus is spread between sexual partners. She says, “We know that there’s sexual transmission, but we don’t know how long and we don’t know if women can transmit it.” Despite this lack of information, it is known that men can spread the virus to their sexual partners while they have symptoms, before symptoms begin, and after symptoms end. The CDC recommends that all men who travelled to an area with Zika use condoms or avoid having sex for at least eight weeks after their return and those who had Zika symptoms do the same for at least six months.

With the upcoming summer mosquito season, public health officials are urging people to stay up-to-date on the latest developments regarding the Zika virus. “Right now there are no local transmitted cases, so women in the United States getting pregnant should not be worried about anything regarding pregnancy,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), but he cautions that this could change with the advent of mosquito season. The CDC’s website contains current information on the spread of Zika and will be updated as the situation evolves throughout the summer.

Albion College student Margaret Berwick has been following the spread of Zika because she planned to travel to Costa Rica in May as part of a study abroad program, but she decided against it when she learned that mosquito transmission of the virus was confirmed in the country. Berwick says, “Hopefully the situation improves so that I can go to Costa Rica next summer, but for now I’m staying home.”

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