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Threat of Zika virus remote but a concern in North Dakota

GRAND FORKS -- The threat of Zika virus in North Dakota is a remote but real concern, a viral researcher and the North Dakota Department of Health says.

2325565+0216 Zika.JPG
A biologist displays Aedes mosquito cells inoculated with virus Zika in the laboratory of Biology from University of Campinas (UNICAMP), in Campinas, Brazil, February 11, 2016. According to UNICAMP, its scientists are developing a test to detect and identify the presence of genetic material associated with the Zika virus, dengue and Chikungunya in samples saliva, blood or urine. (REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker)

GRAND FORKS -- The threat of Zika virus in North Dakota is a remote but real concern, a viral researcher and the North Dakota Department of Health says.

The Zika virus itself produces mild flu-like symptoms, according to Barry Milavetz, a virology expert and associate vice president for research at the University of North Dakota. The threat is from Zika’s possible link to neurological and autoimmune complications and to infant microcephaly.

“The primary problem is for pregnant women,” Milavetz said, “but I do not believe that the mosquito that carries Zika is common here.”

Transmitted by two varieties of the Aedes mosquito, albopictus and aegypti, the Zika virus symptoms last less than a week and include mild fever, rash, conjunctivitis, muscle pain and headache, according to the World Health Organization. There is no specific treatment or vaccine, and the best protection is avoiding Aedes mosquito bites.

The albopictus and aegypti species are present in the southern United States and are as close to North Dakota as southern Iowa, said Laura Cronquist, epidemiologist with the North Dakota Department of Health.

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“We have other species of Aedes mosquitoes,” Cronquist said. “We don’t have those two vectors here.”

The Albopictus and Aegypti species have aggressive feeding habits during the day and will bite and feed from up to six people, which is problematic for infectious disease carriers, she said.

The state Department of Health has counted mosquitoes since 1975, she said, and this year’s research will be vigilant with more trapping of live mosquitoes for viral testing from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“We are ramping up our surveillance program this summer and will be testing for different viruses,” she said. “Zika is one test we are adding in an abundance of caution. We do not expect to find any but we want to be proactive.”

The Aedes vexan is a species of mosquito that is present in North Dakota and can carry canine heartworm, LaCrosse encephalitis and equine encephalitis, the last of which affects humans, she said. The Culex tarsalis mosquito species is also here and can carry the West Nile virus.

“That is alway a major concern of ours,” Cronquist said.

Call to action

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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., joined 46 other senators on Wednesday, in asking the Obama administration for pre-emptive action to protect pregnant women from the Zika virus. The letter from the senators urges a coordinated domestic and international response.

“By taking swift, cohesive action, we can prevent, detect and control this virus that has already affected many children and families in other parts of the world,” Heitkamp said.

Milavetz said the most effective prevention is to ensure the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funded adequately to respond to any emergency. The past few years has given rise to H1N1 influenza, Severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome and the Ebola virus, he said.

“Instead of addressing the virus of the year, give CDC enough money and the mission to take charge when something like this happens,” Milavetz said about helping CDC’s capacity to deal with any eventuality.

Zika virus is usually relatively mild and requires no specific treatment, according to WHO, and typically requires only rest, drinking fluids and taking common medicines. Around 80 percent of people who are infected with Zika do not show any symptoms, Milavetz said, and the rest might have only a rash and headache.

“It should be possible to develop a vaccine but the testing and approval process could take a few years,” Milavetz said.

There is evidence that when a person has the Zika virus, the virus can be found in all body fluids, like blood and urine for example, he said. This is generally a poor way for the virus to be transmitted especially since the virus is not found in the lungs or in sneezes.

“I think the biggest issue would be travel to some place like Brazil,” he said. “If a woman was pregnant I think that would be a bad idea.”

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The Department of Health issued a travel advisory to Brazil and other areas where the Zika virus is occurring, and it can be found at www.ndhealth.gov/disease/zika .

Related Topics: HEALTHHEIDI HEITKAMP
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