Thursday, May 12, 2016

Top Health Leaders Discuss Zika: Is Your District Ready?

Texas physicians and other health leaders gathered yesterday at the Texas Medical Association to brief Texas legislative staff members about the state’s Zika preparedness. The meeting looked at ways individuals, communities, counties, and health agencies should respond if and when mosquitoes within the state become Zika virus carriers and start infecting Texans. That is known in public health circles as local transmission.

The Zika briefing dominated the second “University of Health” infosession for legislators and their staff, presented by the Texas Public Health Coalition (TPHC), a group of more than 30 organizations dedicated to advancing core public health principles at the state and community levels.

Read This: What Texans Need to Know About Zika

So far, there have been no cases of local mosquito transmission within the continental United States, but that can (and will) change, warned physicians.

“We are going to be a state that’s affected [by Zika], there is no doubt. We have the right topography and climate for it,” said TPHC Chair Eduardo Sanchez, MD, MPH.

John Hellerstedt, MD, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), agreed.

“We in public health would not be doing our job if we weren’t planning for the eventuality that Zika would become locally transmitted. Large areas of Texas could be impacted,” he said.

Dr. Hellerstedt told members of the audience, which included fellow physicians, other health leaders, and the media in addition to the legislative staffers, that DSHS is putting together a comprehensive Zika response plan, to be shared with state leaders and the public soon. Currently, DSHS is raising public awareness of the Zika virus and what individuals and communities should do to combat a potential spread.

For now, it’s all about awareness, and the mosquito.

“Completely eradicating the species [of mosquito that transmits Zika] is very, very difficult and probably not the goal we should have in mind in terms of how to combat this,” Dr. Hellerstedt said. “The goal that we should have in mind is to avoid mosquito bites: Deny their breeding habitat (remove standing water); wear insect repellant and long clothing; put up screens; create as many barriers as you can [between yourself and mosquitoes]. That’s what we need to be doing now, and that’s what we need to continue to be doing even if we find Zika being locally transmitted.”

TPHC vice chair John Carlo, MD, MS, added that much of Texas’ focus should be on the state’s poorest communities, where decent housing and access to health care are lacking and where a Zika outbreak would have a devastating impact.

“While infectious diseases put us all at risk, the reality of who’s going to suffer — every time — is the poor,” he said. “If you start really looking at how we can actually make this community stronger, we need to look at how much access our poor have to health care in general. Because without that, you really do not have a way to maintain a resilient community.”

Dr. Carlo also stressed the importance of public health agencies as an effective tool against the Zika virus.

“We really need to be looking at how much we support health agencies across the state, how much we are enabling them to make the decisions they need to be making in terms of how they are staffed and how they are supported,” Dr. Carlo said.

Eduardo Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services, spoke about his agency’s efforts fighting Zika. Hidalgo County borders Mexico, a country with reported cases of local Zika transmission. He told audience members Texas faces several challenges in its fight against Zika. “You’re not going to be able to spray this problem away,” he said.

Mr. Olivarez recommended ways to increase Texas’ response to Zika, including creating a comprehensive tire recycling program (water collected in tires is a popular breeding ground and habitat for mosquitoes), enforcing minimum building/housing standards (so homes have proper infrastructure to keep mosquitoes out), and funding binational surveillance of infectious diseases so that Texas can be more prepared if Mexico reports a disease outbreak, and vice versa.

“Help us fight the good fight,” Mr. Olivarez implored audience members. “Fight the bite by getting involved with your church or civic leaders or civic organization, and you, personally, help us deal with this.”

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