The Zika virus has generated plenty of concern — and media coverage — as it spreads through Central and South America, with the the World Health Organization going as far as this week declaring a public health emergency.
The virus, transmitted through mosquito bites, is linked to the birth defect microcephaly, a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development and abnormal smallness of the head.
International health officials expect the Zika virus to spread farther — but people may not have much of a risk of contracting it in Kentucky anytime in the near future.
The type of mosquito that is known to carry the Zika virus, Aedes aegypti, is rarely found in Kentucky, said Dr. Grayson Brown, entomologist in the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
“It’s a mosquito that we have in Kentucky, but only about one out of about every 5,000 mosquitoes is an Aedes aegypti . So, they’re not very common and they don’t start showing up here until very late in the summer,” Brown said.
People in Kentucky can minimize risks. Brown said the mosquito breeds almost exclusively in containers created by humans. He said they are very common in areas that have poor drainage or sitting water, such as dog dishes, bird baths or sagging gutters.
Brown said unless another type of mosquito known as the Asian tiger mosquito is shown to be capable of carrying and spreading the virus, Kentucky residents won’t have much to worry about.
“For the vast majority of people, this virus is not a problem at all. In fact a large percentage of people who get infected with it are not symptomatic. They have no symptoms and never know they have it,” Brown said.
But pregnant women and women who are planning to become pregnant are at high risk.
“The issue with this has been its impact on primarily pregnant women and the impact on the developing fetus,” said Ruth Carrico, associate professor of medicine at the University of Louisville.
She said another issue are the “number of cases that are happening in susceptible populations.”
Carrico said the outlook in Kentucky isn’t imminently concerning, but a look at other countries’ responses to the virus should serve as a reminder that preparation and planning are important.
“We certainly don’t want to see what’s happening in South America at this time, where we’re seeing babies that are severely damaged and then the response by a number of countries that are saying, ‘We don’t want women in our country to become pregnant for several years ’til we can figure this out and get this under control,'” she said.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Zika virus other than treating the symptoms associated with the condition. So far in the U.S., there have been confirmed cases of Zika virus in Dallas, Georgia and Florida.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed a recent case of the virus in Dallas, where it was passed through sexual transmission. The person carrying the virus had recently returned from a trip to Venezuela.
The virus has also been associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome in individuals who have been infected.
Kraig Humabaugh, senior deputy commissioner at the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said the average Kentuckian is not at risk for the Zika virus.
“The persons who are Kentuckians who live here who are most at risk for Zika virus are those who have traveled to affected countries in Central and South America,” he said.
The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, headache, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Symptoms are thought to last from several days to a week.
If Kentuckians are traveling to areas where the virus is prevalent, they should use insect repellent, wear long sleeve clothes, and avoid going outside when mosquitoes are most active, Humbaugh said.