Zika: Assessing the threat to Darien
DARIEN — David Knauf, Darien’s top health official, might be responsible for the wellbeing of one town on the Connecticut coastline, but his eye is constantly on threats from afar.
Since May 2015, the radius of the Zika virus outbreak that began in Brazil has expanded rapidly into North America. On Feb. 1 the World Health Organization declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 153 cases of travel-related Zika virus reported in the U.S., including cases in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
Although the danger to this point is primarily in traveling, as mosquito season approaches, Connecticut may be at risk.
“If you’re going to any of the Caribbean islands or South America, certainly people are at risk,” said Knauf, director of the Darien Health Department, who recently returned from Puerto Rico. “The kind of precaution is do the best you can to avoid mosquito bites if you’re traveling to areas where Zika is occurring.”
Though the symptoms — including fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis — are typically mild, there is no vaccine for Zika and its effects on babies in utero has caused widespread concern. In February, Connecticut issued a Zika Virus Surveillance and Response Plan not unlike past plans in the state to protect against West Nile virus. Since 1997 the core of the protection plan is an ongoing collection and analysis of the insects in order to determine signs of infectious disease.
Two of the sampling stations are in Darien.
“We live in an environment where mosquitoes are prevalent,” Knauf said. “We’re by the shore, we’re going to have mosquitoes. Sure, you can spray, but the concern about spraying is unintended consequences.”
Knauf said there are concerns that the application of pesticides can worsen asthma symptoms, contaminate water and interfere with the ecosystem. Many lobstermen, Knauf said, believe that pesticides were responsible for the declining lobster population in Long Island Sound.
“We have to be careful and really look at the risk to public health before we rush to do something. There are always unintended consequences for taking action,” Knauf said. “What’s the risk of someone actually becoming seriously ill? It’s not significant. All the data show that the incidence of illness associated with being bit by mosquitoes is very, very low.”
In part, at least in state, this is because Aedes aegypti, the primary transmitter of Zika in the Western Hemisphere, is not found in Connecticut. But a related species, Aedes albopictus, known as the Asian tiger mosquito, has emerged in recent years in Fairfield County and is capable of spreading the disease, although, according to the state’s plan, “the degree to which transmission from this species may occur over time is unknown.”
Whether or not the tiger mosquito proves problematic, there are ways in which people can minimize risk. Tiger mosquito populations thrive in areas such as still water, including clogged gutters, lid-less trash cans, bird baths, fountains, rain gardens and covered pools. Eliminating areas in which water pools, or ensuring that water is circulated wherever possible can stop mosquito larvae from maturing into potentially disease-carrying adults. Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, even in the summer, and applying repellent are easy, if inconvenient, steps to stay safe.
“We’ll never eliminate the threat, there’s too much water here,” Knauf said. “We’re blessed with a lot of rain. We’re blessed with being by the coast. And we’re cursed by the same things we’re blessed by, because there’s pests associated with that. Mosquitoes are one.”