The World Health Organization calls the Zika virus a global health emergency, but entomologist Joe Ballenger says the U.S. is very unlikely to see much of an outbreak while more tropical climates ought to be more concerned.
Ballenger says there are two types of mosquitoes responsible for transmitting the Zika virus to humans, but the yellow fever mosquito, or Aedes aegypti, is the primary culprit.
“The yellow fever mosquito is restricted to the southeastern portion of the U.S.. It ranges upward to South Carolina and west to southeast Texas. Then there’s some populations in south central Arizona and some in California,” said Ballenger.
The other mosquito involved is known as the Asian Tiger mosquito. It has a greater presence in the U.S., going as far north as Iowa, but Ballenger says it’s a much less effective vector for Zika than the yellow fever mosquito.
“Large scale viral outbreaks are really only seen in areas with yellow fever mosquito populations,” said Ballenger.
While that may sound ominous for the areas of the U.S. where the yellow fever mosquito is present, Ballenger says there is no reason for alarm. First, he says mosquitoes are not a threat at all right now.
“Mosquitoes in the U.S. are very much a seasonal thing. Right now it’s winter and transmission is impossible in most of the U.S. because the mosquitoes aren’t out,” said Ballenger.
But even when things warm up, Ballenger says the track record of mosquitoes infecting people in America with other diseases is quite limited.
“With dengue (fever) and yellow fever, they tend not to stick around too long in the U.S. Transmission hasn’t happened in the U.S., at least in the lower 48, in a very long time,” said Ballenger.
Ballenger recommends being vigilant but calm.
“Be on the lookout but there’s no reason to panic. There’s a lot of differences between the U.S. and Brazil in terms of how mosquitoes encounter people and where they bite,” said Ballenger.
His advice for reducing exposure to the Zika virus sounds similar to the mosquito advice we get every summer.
“Keep mosquitoes outside by repairing window screens and using air conditioning. Mosquitoes like it warm so they don’t like to go into warm houses. Wear long sleeves and pants during summer and avoid dark colors. Wear insect repellent, specifically Deet, Picaridin or something called IR 3535, which is found in Avon skin so soft lotion,” said Ballenger.
“Use reasonable amounts,” he said. “You don’t need to bathe in the stuff.”
He also says to dump out sources of standing water like bird baths and flower pots since they are a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Ballenger also dismisses the contention that genetically modified mosquitoes are to blame. He says that experimentation in South America was over before any Zika outbreak was detected.
“There was an experiment releasing mosquitoes in Brazil two or three years ago but those releases stopped well before this epidemic. So the notion that the mosquitoes are genetically modified in order to carry this virus is not true,” said Ballenger.
From a scientific perspective, Ballenger is hoping scientists can glean more insights into the impact Zika has on the human body. He says reports of problems of fetal brain development are very likely linked but that hasn’t been proven yet.