This year, 201 cases of the Zika virus have been reported in Texas, and it has the potential to spread, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
On Saturday, a panel of public officials and medical specialists called the people of Texas to action in the fight against further infection. The event was part of the Texas Tribune Festival.
Ann Barnes, an associate professor of internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said she has noticed a rise in the presence of Zika at the clinic where she volunteers, Legacy Community Health. Legacy has helped contribute to the fight against Zika by actively seeking at-risk pregnant women.
“It’s our responsibility to talk patient to patient [about Zika prevention],” Barnes said. “Pregnant women have heard about Zika, but the use of insect repellent needs to be encouraged to supplement clinical support.”
Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the best way to fight the Zika virus is to prevent it from spreading to humans through mosquito control.
“We have protections to create barriers against bites,” Hellerstedt said. “We should be doing these things before [the problem] gets here.”
Nicole Collier, a Texas state representative, and Martha Rac, a maternal-fetal specialist and OB/GYN at Baylor College of Medicine, agreed that the control of Zika is a preventative issue.
“We should be concerned,” Rac said. “If you look at the distribution of the pandemic as we know it, Texas has the mosquitoes and the climate and the international travel hub and the population. But we have great faith in the public health department to take action [before it becomes an issue].”
Collier described how the prevention of Zika relies on public communication and cooperation, leading to factors that are difficult to control. Collier said an example is the bureaucratic issue of working together with the Mexican government because the border is a huge area of concern for possible transmission.
The increase in Zika patients worried the panelists, especially because of the potential strain on Medicaid and the lack of access to health resources in rural areas.
Beyond prevention, Hellerstedt discussed the issue of researching possible cures.
“The ideas so far are not very cost effective,” he said. “Even when you lower the population of mosquitoes by 90 percent, you don’t see any difference in disease transmission. Public health is a science; we need an evidence-based reason to adopt a strategy.”
The panelists all acknowledged that Zika is starting a conversation about lack of access to primary healthcare in Texas and beyond.
“The state granting funds so that mosquito repellent is free for pregnant women is a step in the right direction so that costs aren’t a barrier,” Barnes said. “We are also encouraging men to abstain from sex or engage in barrier-protected sex if they’ve traveled to high risk areas.”
Even when people are high-risk for Zika, Rac said that doctors often find it difficult to screen for the virus since 85 percent of cases don’t express symptoms. In any case, Rac said that the best thing right now is for everyone to be aware and vigilant.
Hellerstedt said that in the end prevention of the virus will come down to forming and executing a plan.
“The most difficult thing in the world is a call to action,” Hellerstedt said. “From hearing about it to actually doing something about it is a difficult task.”