Statewide summit preps Texas for local transmission of Zika

A statewide Zika summit in McAllen, Texas (Courtesy; KVEO)
A statewide Zika summit in McAllen, Texas (Courtesy: KVEO)

MCALLEN, Texas (KXAN) — Hundreds of local and state leaders gathered in a Texas border town Wednesday to plan for the Zika virus.

The virus has yet to spread from a mosquito to a human in the United States. However, conversations about the virus are reaching all levels of government. A letter from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s executive commissioner, Charles Smith, asked the state to allow Medicaid and other services to help women of childbearing age purchase mosquito repellent.

A state spokesperson says the commission has yet to get final approval for the roughly $30 million proposal. That’s hardly the only effort. Texas launched what is now a $2.5 million awareness campaign to provide information about Zika and encourage prevention, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also approved $1.5 million for Zika response in Texas. DSHS will use the money for education, training and public outreach, but not for items like bug spray or netting, department spokesperson Carrie Williams tells KXAN.

Medical Director and Health Authority for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department Dr. Phil Huang attended the summit in McAllen. He says health officials went through exercises, examining how they would respond to a local transmission of the virus. Still, Huang says officials cannot plan ahead for every situation. Many variables would change response. For example, whether a person lives in the country or in a dense city could impact the reaction from health professionals.

“We’re not going to have a set number. [For example,] if we get five cases here then we’re calling that widespread local transmission, or something like that. Because, there can be five people in one household… in an isolated farm someplace. So that’s part of these discussions about the different scenarios that might play out.”

Huang highlighted the health department’s focus on awareness. He also says the city and county use a special treatment called larvicide to kill early-stage mosquitoes in still water. However, the health department is not spraying for mosquitoes because the type of mosquitoes that can carry Zika live closer to homes, Huang says.

“We don’t expect, when there’s local transmission here, that it’s going to be like it has been seen in Brazil,” said Huang. “The conditions that we have here, typically we have air conditioning, we have screened-in housing… In general, we are not going to have the same level of transmission that has been seen in Brazil.”

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