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Health

The silver lining in preparing for the Zika virus

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Ellen Abbott
/
WRVO News
At a recent "Fight the Bite" forum in Onondaga County, much of the attention focused on ways to get New Yorkers to avoid mosquito and tick bites, which then prevents all the insect-borne illnesses that go along with them.

The state health department is prepared, if a case of the Zika virus develops in New York state. While officials want to be ready for the worst, they’re finding some positives in the reaction to the latest insect driven disease, that at its worst, causes birth defects in newborns.

Byron Backenson, deputy director of communicable disease control for the New York State Department of Health. He said much of the work surrounding the Zika virus has gone on behind doors, with planning meetings, aggressive testing of mosquitos, especially downstate, and a public relations push to alert pregnant women who are traveling. Amidst the fight against Zika, Backenson said there are some silver linings. For one thing, there’s been some extra funds coming to the health department.

"It allows us to be able to do things like buy mosquito traps, so we can have them in our arsenal, that we might not necessarily have otherwise," Backenson said. "So, we can deploy them, maybe not for Zika. If Zika doesn’t turn out to be a problem, we can use them for West Nile virus. We can use them for Eastern Equine (Encephalitis)."

Those are two other diseases spread by mosquitos. And Backenson said that’s another plus that’s sprung from concern about Zika: an emphasis on prevention. Getting in the habit of using bug spray before heading outdoors, is the same thing health officials want New Yorkers to do also to keep other tick and mosquito spread viruses at bay.

"The public can still perform the same activities and get protection from not just one or two disease, but seven, eight, nine or 10,” he said.

So far, all the cases of Zika diagnosed in New York state were acquired in other parts of the world. Backenson said if you look at other illnesses spread by the same kind of mosquito, it’s unclear if it will even make it this far north.

"The history would tell us that the likelihood of us getting a large outbreak of Zika is very small," Backenson said. "It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for it but the likelihood is very small."

He says everyone has the power to protect themselves against diseases carried by insects, which is one thing that makes the campaign to fight tick or mosquito borne illnesses easy.

"Protection is the same cross all of them," Backenson said. "So, what you protect against for Lyme Disease is going to protect you against Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis or Rocky Mounted spotted fever or Ehrlichiosis. Or the mosquito bornes, Eastern Equine Encephalitis or West Nile or even Zika.”

Backenson, at a "Fight the Bite" forum in Onondaga County, said personal protection measures need to become second nature though. New Yorkers need to be diligent about checking for ticks after a hike or gardening, and applying insect spray when they head outside. Health officials say prevention and early recognition are key this time of year, when insect-borne infections can be a serious health concern.