Chilling facts about Zika brought out at Sarasota forum

The mosquito-borne Zika virus is one of the most complex emergencies that the Centers for Disease Control has ever dealt with, a CDC official said Monday.

Rear Admiral Stephen Redd, director of the CDC’s Office for Public Health Preparedness and Response, traveled from Atlanta to address a crowd of 50 and a panel of local experts in a public forum at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee.

The Zika virus is commanding the attention of many groups, not in small part due to horrendous birth defects it can cause.

“Almost every part of the CDC and public health agencies around the country are working on a response,” Redd said. “Viral diseases, diagnostic technology, pregnancy, birth defects, vectors, all of those groups are participating in the response.

“We are learning a lot every day,” Redd added during the forum, which was hosted by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.

Redd gave a chilling account of what the Zika virus can do to a developing baby. He called it a “collapse of the skull.”

Redd said there was, at first, some doubt and skepticism when reports began coming in from Brazil in 2015 that babies of mothers who had been bit by Zika-carrying mosquitoes were acquiring microcephaly, a condition where the babies’ head is smaller than expected.

But those doubts have now been replaced by concern.

“At the CDC in January, we obtained brain specimens from babies who had died of the infection, and under the microscope you could see the virus affecting the brain,” Redd said. “It was there. It causes not just problems with development, but also destruction of the brain tissue. The brain almost collapses and that leads to the small heads. It’s a collapse of the skull as the brain is destroyed.”

Redd and the other experts strongly advised women who are pregnant or expect to be pregnant in the future to not travel to Central and South America or the Caribbean where the virus is rampant.

The experts also wanted the public to know that Zika can be transmitted through sex.

Redd advised women in Florida who are pregnant to also use a mosquito repellant when going outdoors.

“Deet is safe for pregnant women,” Reed said. “They should also wear light-colored clothing which covers well.”

During the hour-long forum, Redd and local experts explained that the more than 170 Zika cases in Florida are all travel-related, contracted by people who were bitten by an infected mosquito in Central and South America or the Caribbean and returned to the U.S. showing symptoms of Zika, which are usually a mild fever and rash.

Manatee and Sarasota have not had even a travel-related case of Zika yet, Buchanan said.

Experts said a vaccine for Zika could be a year or so away.

Experts who spoke at the forum included Jennifer Bencie, Manatee County Health Department administrator; Chuck Henry, Sarasota County Health Department administrator; Don Hermey, Manatee County emergency management chief; Mark Latham, Manatee County Mosquito Control District director; Matt Smith, Sarasota County Mosquito Control District director; and Dr. Washington Hill, fellow of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Buchanan said he arranged the public forum to give residents guidance on ways to reduce their exposure as the summer months approach. The number of Florida cases is the highest in the nation.

“I want to make sure that Floridians are protected and fully equipped to confront Zika,” Buchanan said. “The information and guidance we heard today by local and federal health experts is invaluable to safeguarding lives.”

Buchanan said he supports President Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to fight the Zika virus and that he hopes the political wrangling over the money will be resolved in a week or so.

“Every day brings more bad news about the potential impact of the mosquito-borne virus,” Buchanan said.

Latham and others urged Floridians to clean their backyards. He also voiced his concern about the lack of public awareness in confronting the virus.

“Public awareness and public education doesn't seem to be working,” Latham said. “I don't know what else we can do to increase public awareness. We can react when we are informed — we can react very quickly.”

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond

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