How Much Should Pennsylvanians Care About The Zika Virus?

Feb 17, 2016

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported last week that two residents of the state who recently traveled to affected countries were diagnosed with the Zika virus.  Although the women have recovered, and their infection serves no public threat, fears still linger about potential spread of the virus.  Should Pennsylvanians be concerned? Bill Todaro, medical entomologist for the Allegheny County Health Department, and Ben Schmitt, health reporter for the Tribune Review, joined Essential Pittsburgh to address this fear.

“I don’t think it’s too much to worry about right now.  It’s going to be interesting to see how it develops down the road,” Todaro says.

Todaro says fear comes from a lack of knowledge about the virus and the mosquitos carrying it.  Todaro explains the Asian Tiger Mosquito, the type most likely to carry the disease, is very “Zika friendly,” and breeds closely to people, attacking during the day.  He hopes recognition of the insect and understand of its potential will increase as researchers become more aware of Zika.

“Our public education is a big hurdle to try to get people to pay attention to this thing,” Todaro says.

Todaro says the Allegheny County Health Department is making gleaning out breeding sites a top priority this year, setting up increased amounts of traps in more neighborhoods.  In doing this, he says more research can be gathered about the mosquito itself, potentially leading to a vaccine. 

To Todaro, the Zika virus has been blown way out of proportion in North America, where screens, repellents, and traps are more readily available.  The ability to conduct research and potentially create a vaccine will also make the recovery process easier for North Americans, if the virus is contracted.

“Our immune systems are geared up to fight these viruses, often.  We survive.”

Ben Schmitt, who has been writing on Zika’s spread for the Tribune Review, has been looking further into the reported victims in Pennsylvania. He says the State Health Department has failed to be transparent on the matter, and with so many stories surfacing on the internet about the virus, it is hard for those concerned to decipher fact from fiction. 

“This is a hot story, and people want to find out more about it. And we [journalists] want to inform them,” Schmitt says.

Schmitt praised the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which held a Twitter chat with journalists last week, openly admitting what they truly did or did not know about the virus. 

So far, the CDC has said rumors of reported birth defects due to mosquito preventing pesticides are not true, and that a vaccine could take anywhere between 1-4 years. 

Regarding potential threats in our region, Schmitt says there is still much to learn.

“We’re still trying to figure out how much of a threat, if any, it will be in Western Pennsylvania.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.