With Manatee County’s population booming, the summer rainy season arriving and the Zika health hazard growing day by day, residents should be increasingly mindful of how to help prevent mosquito outbreaks. Just as Tropical Storm Colin served as a “good wake-up call” about the advent of hurricane season, especially for newcomers, the current and future downpours are sure to leave mosquito breeding grounds everywhere and heighten the Zika threat.
As of Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported 172 cases of the mosquito-borne illness, but none home grown. All of the victims contracted the disease while traveling outside the United States. But Zika, which causes microcephaly and other birth defects in newborns, has stricken 38 pregnant Florida women. While the Sunshine State is the epicenter of the U.S. flare-up, nationwide more than 600 cases have been reported — including a few transmitted via sex.
While Manatee County remains Zika free, at some point a resident who visits South or Central America or the Caribbean will return with the virus. Should that individual then be bitten by the Aedes mosquito, the Zika virus could spread here. Swamp mosquitoes, common here, are not a threat.
But the director of Manatee County Mosquito Control, Mark Lathan, reassured county commissioners this week his team is well prepared to battle the swamp species, But Aedes mosquitoes, native to large chunks of the country, are born in containers and spend their entire lives within a small radius — only a few hundred feet, perhaps just a backyard. Residents could become victims of their own lack of awareness and action. Their neighbors could be vulnerable from that lack of diligence, especially pregnant women.
Commissioners heard Lathan’s call for the public’s help and directed the Neighborhood Services Department to lead an awareness campaign and advise residents how to drain off standing water from flower pots, buckets, tires, tarps — anywhere that water can collect, even the curves in bromeliad plants and a bottle cap. All it takes, warns the Florida Department of Health, is a few drops of water.
Congress finally appears poised to help, unless political squabbling breaks out again. The Senate voted Wednesday to forge ahead with negotiations with the House on Zika funding — this after House conservatives blocked a meaningful allocation over demands for budget cuts elsewhere. President Obama requested $1.9 billion to combat Zika in February, and public health officials have been clamoring for that aid. The House failed to treat this as an urgent issue demanding immediate action, but must now as the virus infects more Americans.
The World Health Organization estimates Zika will spread across most of this hemisphere and infect up to 4 million people by the end of the year. The Zika outbreak compelled the federal Centers for Disease Control to place its emergency operations center on a “Level 1” status — the agency’s highest alert mark and only the fourth time that status has been declared. Health experts expect mosquitoes carrying the virus will infect Americans within our borders in mere weeks. The situation could not be more urgent.
Congress has already failed to get in front of this looming crisis and cannot ignore the public health threat any longer. Florida’s senators and key congressmen have been urging action for weeks. Funds are critically needed to build a greater capacity to test for Zika, create mosquito control procedures and hasten the development of a vaccine. A full-scale assault on the virus — that is, Obama’s $1.9 billion request — should be mounted.
In the meantime, Manatee County must wage its own ground battle. Residents stand on the front lines.