Testing for Zika virus in mosquitoes begins in Austin

Lab at Department of State Health Services in Austin testing mosquitoes for Zika and other viruses. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)
Lab at Department of State Health Services in Austin testing mosquitoes for Zika and other viruses. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — While the Texas Department of State Health Services lab in Austin has been able to test for Zika virus in human specimens for several months now, the lab only recently started testing mosquitoes to see if they are carrying the Zika virus. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test went online last week. It helps them quickly identify if a mosquito is infected with viruses including Zika, West Nile and Chikungunya.

When mosquitoes arrive at the lab from local health departments, they are frozen at -80 degrees. Scientists then take them out and sort them by species on a chilled table. If mosquitoes become too warm, viruses can degrade and therefore cannot be detected as easily.

If mosquitoes carrying Zika end up in Texas, people who live in Austin and other large cities could be more susceptible to contracting Zika. The department says the mosquitoes do not travel far and thrive in urban environments.

The Aedes aegypti is known to transmit Zika. Scientists believe the Aedes albopictus could also transmit it, but not as effectively.

This summer, DSHS says they will conduct surveillance across the state to better understand where certain mosquitoes live, which will help them have a better understanding on which areas they need to focus on in the future. The state agency is also in contact with cities and counties to understand what they are doing to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses from spreading, and specifically if they are doing anything differently to combat Zika.

So far, 44 people in Texas have become infected with Zika. Forty-three acquired it while traveling to areas where mosquitoes are known to carry the infection; the other got it after having sexual contact with someone who had traveled.

The Department of State Health Services says while traveling to infected areas, you should use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and stay indoors. And after you come back, DSHS says “just in case” you got infected, you should continue the same precautions for three weeks to prevent the virus from spreading to Texas mosquitoes.

“The most important thing to do is avoid mosquito bites,” Chris Van Deusen with the Texas Department of State Health Services said. “So that any mosquito that bites you has the potential for picking up the disease and then spread it to somebody else.”


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