Zika isn’t the only mosquito-borne disease to be worried about

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito carries the Zika virus, as well as dengue and chikungunya. This mosquito is present in the state of Arizona. (Photo credit: James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
The Aedes aegypti mosquito carries the Zika virus, as well as dengue and chikungunya. This mosquito is present in the state of Arizona. (Photo credit: James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The Zika virus is taking one country at a time, and although the mosquito that carries the virus is present in Arizona, the mosquitoes here do not carry the virus.

The mosquito-borne virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also the main vector for dengue and chikungunya, and has also been detected of carrying the West Nile Virus. Arizona is one of the states in the U.S. that the mosquito considers home, said Dr. Laura Adams, epidemiology field officer with the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The Riehle Lab at the University of Arizona does research on the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The mosquitoes are kept in containers to feed and grow. (Photo by Joanna Daya/Arizona Sonora News Service)
The Riehle Lab at the University of Arizona does research on the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The mosquitoes are kept in containers to feed and grow. (Photo by Joanna Daya/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“We have healthy population of Aedes aegypti here in Tucson,” said Michael Riehle, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona who researches and studies the mosquito. “Certainly if somebody is infected with Zika virus and comes into Arizona, our local mosquitoes can pick it up and transmit it.”

Zika, despite its possible link to causing a birth defect in the brain called microcephaly, is also considered to be the milder virus of the three diseases that the Aedes aegypti can carry. There have been no reports of death from the Zika virus and only a few reports of hospitalizations, said Jessica Rigler, Bureau Chief of Epidemiology and Disease Control for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“With Zika virus, only about one in five people who get an infection actually develop symptoms,” Rigler said. “For those 20 percent of people that do experience symptoms after infection, it’s a pretty mild illness. Typically, those who do experience symptoms are sick about a week or so, and they get a rash, fever, pain in their joints and then red eyes, something like pink eye.”

Still, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $1.8 billion in emergency funds to help U.S. scientists learn more about Zika and how to vaccinate against it. Also, pregnant women are being warned not to travel to regions affected by the virus, including Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rigler said that although the mosquitoes are here, the likeliness of seeing a rapid Zika virus outbreak in Arizona is still unknown.

“We’ve seen outbreaks of dengue virus and of chikungunya in other places of the world,” Rigler said. “However, in Arizona, we haven’t really seen any widespread outbreaks of either one of those diseases, so if we consider Zika the way we would think about dengue or chikungunya, it is possible, but not necessarily probable that Zika would spread rapidly.”

Arizona residents should be wary of other mosquito-borne diseases. Although the state hasn’t seen a major outbreak of dengue or chikungunya, there have been some reported cases of both in the past. However, those who were diagnosed had contracted the virus after traveling outside Arizona to areas with dengue or chikungunya.

The most recent case of dengue in Southern Arizona is from the fall, according to Michael McGee, interim director of the environmental health division of the Cochise Health and Social Services.

“It showed up in Douglas,” McGee said. “It was brought in – they were visiting farther south and it was a traveler that came back – so it wasn’t one that was caught here.”

Still, McGee said dengue is always on the minds of Southern Arizona officials.

“Dengue can be a very serious disease and can lead to hospitalization and death,” Rigler said. “For chikungunya, it’s uncomfortable. People like to say it’s not going to kill you, but you wish you were dead from chikungunya. It’s not typically fatal, but it’s a very, very uncomfortable disease.”

One of the most prominent mosquito-borne diseases in Arizona is the West Nile virus, which can be fatal.

“We definitely have cases of West Nile virus that are reported in Arizona every year,” Rigler said. “We do know that it can lead to hospitalization and can lead to death in certain serious cases.”

Protecting yourself from mosquito bites is essential.

Health officials such as McGee and Rigler suggest wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to avoid mosquito bites.

“Also, use an effective insect repellant,” Rigler said. “[Centers for Disease Control] has a link on their website that demonstrates some different kinds of effective insect repellents.”

Keeping the household free from areas where mosquitoes can breed is also an essential step.

“We also want to make sure that people don’t have places where mosquitoes can breed around their home, like things that can hold standing water,” Adams said. “It’s a good idea that there aren’t any buckets or cans or toys or things outside that can hold water where mosquitoes can breed.”

If Arizona does see cases of Zika, or other mosquito viruses, Riehle said the state should be able to localize and stop the outbreaks.

“There’s lots of control measures you can take,” Riehle said. “You can just go out there with insecticide or larvicides and treat the situation and snuff it out possibly fairly quickly.”

Joanna Daya is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at jofran15@email.arizona.edu.

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