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Officials say Zika can be curbed by fighting mosquitoes and deferring travel

Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons

Los Angeles County public health officials Wednesday suggested there's no reason to panic about the Zika virus, saying there are steps the public can take to ensure the disease doesn't take hold in Southern California. 

Speaking to reporters outside the county health department, Interim Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser said his agency has received reports of fewer than 20 possible cases in L.A. County, about half of whom are pregnant women. The county has sent specimens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing, he said.

So far the county has confirmed just one case of Zika virus, in a teenage girl who traveled to El Salvador last fall and has since recovered.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects in Brazil an international public health emergency. During Wednesday's update, L.A. health officials said it's important to keep things in perspective. 

"In comparison to the one case of Zika that we've diagnosed, we've had hundreds of cases of West Nile Virus [also transmitted by mosquito] for the last three years in this county and quite a few deaths from that," said Gunzenhauser.

Officials note that about 80 percent of those who contract Zika never get sick, and those who do only experience mild fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis.

Gunzenhauser reiterated the CDC's advice that pregnant women consider postponing travel to areas experiencing high rates of Zika virus transmission, adding that anyone who travels to these 30 countries and territories should protect themselves against mosquito bites.

He also underscored the importance of eliminating local mosquito breeding sites. The 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.

While Gunzenhauser said he has "some concern" that the virus could eventually be transmitted locally, he's confident these two prevention strategies "are achievable and they can both protect health and protect our community."

Gunzenhauser expects more people to request testing as concern about the virus spreads, adding, "a lot of those are probably not going to be borne out, but it will help us understand better whether people who have traveled elsewhere have actually gotten infected."

Everyone shares the responsibility for preventing mosquitoes from breeding and spreading diseases locally, said Truc Dever, general manager of the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District. 

"It is important for us to emphasize that a successful mosquito control program requires input and action from the public," Dever said. "Homeowners, residents and business owners must take responsibility for mosquito breeding conditions on their own property and their own yards."