Don’t freak out, but the Zika virus more than likely is headed to Arizona.
So far, about 30 cases have been reported in the United States, and all but one (an unlucky Texan who appears to have contracted the disease through sexual intercourse with her infected husband) were travelers who picked up the virus abroad. It’s been contained thus far, said Dr. Qiang Chen, a professor at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University, because the virus primarily is spread person-to-person by a type of mosquito, called Aedes aegypti, found in only a handful of Southern states.
Unfortunately, this includes Arizona, which is swarming with the hardy little monsters, known for the white markings on their legs and their ability to breed in containers of water as small as bottle caps.
“We have the mosquitoes,” Chen told New Times. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d say it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing Zika.”
In January, the Arizona Department of Public Health began screening travelers exhibiting flu-like symptoms for Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue fever and chikungunya.
The World Health Organization declared an international health emergency this week after the Zika virus, which before 2015 had been confined to parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands, swept across Latin America. The WHO estimates about 4 million people in the Americas will fall ill before the season winds down.
Until recently, scientists thought the Zika virus was relatively harmless. Only one in five people who gets the virus even showed symptoms, which typically included fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis.
As the virus has spread, however, health experts have linked it to more serious side effects, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a muscle disorder that sometimes results in permanent paralysis. Although it has yet to be proved, experts also suspect Zika is connected to microcephaly, a devastating birth defect that causes abnormally small heads, underdeveloped brains, and reduced life expectancy.
In Brazil, one of the hardest-hit countries, the health ministry suspects between 500,000 and 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika since October. More than 4,500 cases of microcephaly have been reported.
Chen said it is improbable that Arizona — or the United States, for that matter — would experience such a large-scale outbreak.
Aedes aegypti thrives in densely populated urban areas with poor sanitation, he said. The key to containing the virus is controlling the mosquito population.
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“We are better protected than less-developed countries like Brazil,” he said. “We have windows and doors with screens. We spray insecticide. We don’t have a lot of stagnant water.”
To lower the risk of mosquito-borne infection, the Maricopa Country Department of Public Health recommends wearing long sleeves and pants and using insect repellent that has DEET, picardin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Because mosquitoes breed in standing water, officials suggest changing water in bird baths and pet bowls at least twice weekly and properly maintaining decorative ponds and pools.
For more information, visit fightthebitemaricopa.com.