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LA and Orange County working to prevent spread of Zika virus

Photo taken in the lab. The mosquito was frozen, which is the secret to get a good pose.
dgarkauskas via Flickr Creative Commons
Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus.

As concerns increase throughout the Americas about a mosquito-borne virus associated with serious birth defects, Southern California public health agencies are taking steps to prevent illness among pregnant women and their babies.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, public health officials have alerted medical providers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent recommendation that pregnant women in any trimester consider postponing travel to countries experiencing high rates of Zika virus transmission. On Friday the CDC expanded the list of countries to 22.

Health officials are also collaborating with local vector control districts to ensure the virus doesn't spread locally.

Most people infected with Zika virus don't get sick, but about 20 percent of them will experience mild symptoms including fever, pink eye, rash and joint pain. The virus has gotten a lot more attention recently following reports of babies in Brazil being born with abnormally small heads after their mothers were infected with the virus while pregnant. Officials are investigating whether Zika can be linked to the deformity.

The CDC is also working with Brazilian authorities to investiate a possible link between the virus and Guillain-Barre, a rare syndrome that can lead to paralysis. 

Pregnant women who can't alter their travel plans should talk with their physicians and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites, according to the CDC. Those steps include using insect repellent, wearing long clothing, using air conditioning and screens to keep mosquitoes outside and removing sources of standing water. There is no vaccine for Zika virus.

If pregnant women do travel to a country with Zika transmission and develop two or more symptoms of the virus during or within two weeks of travel, they should be tested for the virus, according to the CDC guidelines released this week. If women are infected with Zika virus during pregnancy, the CDC says their fetuses and infants should be evaluated for possible congenital infection and neurologic abnormalities.

Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, deputy director of L.A. County's acute communicable disease control program, says local doctors and residents have reached out to his department for advice, adding, "Anytime there is an infection that is associated with a serious birth defect, it's certainly something that concerns a lot of people."

The L.A. County health department is also providing this information to officials at the consulates of countries affected by the virus, so they can inform their constituents about the potential health risks associated with travel to Latin America, Schwartz says.

Health officials are also collaborating with local vector control agencies to prevent the virus from being transmitted locally.

Aedes aegypti , the type of mosquito that primarily carries Zika (as well as the dengue and chikungunya viruses), is found in parts of Southern California, but none of the mosquitoes trapped here have been carrying the virus.

Still, "there's at least a potential" that someone could become infected with the virus abroad, return to Southern California and be bitten by one of these mosquitoes, says Dr. Matt Zahn, the Orange County public health department's medical director for epidemiology. Then, he continues, "you would have passage of the virus within counties."

If the health agency identifies someone infected with Zika virus, then the vector control district will investigate the immediate area to make sure there are no sources of standing water where the invasive mosquitoes could breed, says Robert Cummings, lab director for the Orange County vector control agency.

Schwartz, of L.A. County, notes that local agencies have been fighting these mosquitoes and the diseases they carry for several years, and "Zika virus provides yet another reason why we need to be diligent with our efforts in vector control and also our efforts to protect people who may be traveling to affected areas and then who may come back to Los Angeles with these infections."

California health providers are not required to report cases of Zika virus to the state; this week the Department of Public Health asked them to voluntarily inform it of any infections. One Californian has become infected with Zika virus this year, according to Public Health, which says the individual contracted the disease abroad.

The CDC says there have been a dozen cases in the U.S.