Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus

JACKSON – Mississippi health officials are preparing for more Zika infection reports in the state.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs said two cases confirmed within hours of each other last week are probably the first of many Zika infections in the state.

“We expect there will be many more cases associated with travel,” Dobbs said. But contracting Zika in Mississippi is unlikely, he said.

Dobbs warned Mississippi residents traveling to the Caribbean or South America to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. The Department of Health recommends using a DEET-based mosquito repellent, wearing long sleeves and ensuring all open windows have screens.

The Zika virus is primarily transmitted by the aedes aegypti mosquito, which is found in some Caribbean and South and Central American countries. The aedes aegypti mosquito has not been documented in Mississippi since 1986.

On Thursday afternoon, the Mississippi Department of Health announced a Madison County resident had contracted the state’s first case of Zika. Friday morning, they confirmed a second case in a Noxubee County teen. Both were infected on mission trips to Haiti. As of Monday, the Health Department had not said if the cases were related.

“This is a popular time of year to do mission trips if you’re from here,” said Liz Sharlot, communications director at the Mississippi Department of Health. “We’ve been waiting for this. We knew we’d have travel-related cases.”

The Noxubee County patient is a 17-year-old girl, according to Dr. Slater Lowry, the Columbus internist who treated her.

She visited his clinic with flu-like symptoms on Feb. 25, shortly after returning from Haiti. Before that day, Lowry said, he had only read about Zika in medical journals, but the teen had a trio of symptoms that struck him as unusual.

“The red-eyes, the rash, the tender joints, that’s the tip-off it’s Zika,” Lowry said. “But
I’m in Columbus. I guess when I go to work each morning, I’m not thinking about seeing a Zika virus case.”

Lowry sent her lab work to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that day. Four weeks later they confirmed the test was positive for Zika. According to Lowry, the patient had fully recovered by the time she received her diagnosis.

“She was really tired and run down for a while. It took two to three weeks before she came back to her normal self,” Lowry said.

The disease gained international attention in January after Brazilian government officials said they suspected a link between infected pregnant women and a rise in children born with microcephaly.

“That’s why our main concern right now is women of child-bearing age,” Sharlot said. “Any women who could get pregnant, who wants to get pregnant or may be pregnant, any woman who’s even thinking about being pregnant should skip going over to any Zika-infected countries.”

According to Dobbs, doctors have not determined how soon a woman can safely become pregnant after infection. On average, the virus stays in the blood for seven days after the onset of symptoms. But up to 80% of people with Zika never display symptoms.

“Even asymptomatic people could spread the virus,” Dobbs said. “That’s why we recommend that people who’ve travelled to a Zika country do everything they can to avoid bites for three weeks.”

The CDC has reported 273 travel-associated cases of the disease in the United States. Of these, 19 are in pregnant women. Currently no cases of the Zika virus have been contracted locally by mosquito in the United States.

“The mosquito we have here is not the same mosquito that carries the virus, although other mosquitos could pose a theoretical risk,” Dobbs said.

Sharlot cited the aedes albopictus, a mosquito common in the southeastern United States, as a potential threat.

Because the Zika virus can remain in semen for 60 days after infection it is also highly sexually transmittable. Six of the 273 infections were transmitted through sex. As a result, the Department of Health has warned any men who have traveled to a Zika country, even if they are asymptomatic, to avoid having unprotected sex with a pregnant woman for the duration of the pregnancy.

The Department of Health also warns men who have tested positive for Zika to avoid unprotected sex with any women of childbearing age for six months.

“Public health always errs on the side of being conservative,” Sharlot said.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.