Lingering debris, water from Hurricane Hermine could hamper Florida's Zika fight

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As Floridians prepare for what may be a lousy Labor Day weekend, officials are bracing for what could be a more devastating effect of Hurricane Hermine: derailment of the state’s mosquito control efforts to prevent the spread of Zika, a virus that can be sexually transmitted and cause severe birth defects.

Although officials have identified active transmission of the virus in South Florida, some experts, including Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, think its local presence in the continental United States could be more widespread. That likely reality could come to light after the storm passes, Hotez said.

“The good news is that pretty aggressive storms with high wind and rain can wash away mosquito breeding sites, so in the short term it could have a potentially positive effect,” Hotez, also the Texas Children’s Hospital endowed chair in Tropical Pediatrics, told “But then what happens is as the flood waters recede, that could create new breeding sites for mosquitoes.”

Joe Conlon, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, said any winds beyond 10 mph would impact mosquito control efforts in South Florida, where three samples of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the primary vector of Zika, recently tested positive for the virus.

In the short term, the biggest problem Floridians may face is with nuisance mosquitoes, he added. A persistent drought in the state over the past few years has hampered those mosquito populations, but flooding water will inundate eggs, leading numbers to surge.

“We’ll experience a bumper crop of nuisance mosquitoes— there’s no question about it,” Conlon, who is based in Jacksonville, told “We’re going to have mosquitoes out the yin yang.”

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During a press conference Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Hermine has the potential to bring a storm surge of up to 9 feet in Florida and acknowledged that likely flooding could pose a threat in the state’s Zika battle. Aedes aegypti love standing water, Conlon said, especially in debris like tires and cups.

"You've heard the message with Zika,” Scott said during the conference. “We want no standing water. Well, we're going to have standing water when this happens.”

Conlon advised states along the Gulf Coast and the South, through which Hermine is projected to travel, to step up preventative measures against Zika. For officials, that means distributing public service announcements and increasing mosquito control efforts after the storm passes. Residents can protect themselves by wearing EPA-registered mosquito repellent, he said.

Conlon couldn’t predict whether the storm would trigger a spread of Zika across Florida or other states in the South, but said if he were a betting man, he didn’t think it’d change the virus’ projected course.

“Although there’s a potential that it would increase the probability of it spreading, everybody’s preparing for it anyway,” he said. “The only thing it might do is it might kick Congress into gear.”

In light of mosquitoes testing positive for Zika in South Florida and the federal government’s lack of a formal surveillance system for the virus, Hotez said he thinks the virus is likely already present elsewhere. He expressed concern over what he perceives as a false sense of public comfort over Zika.

“People think there’s just transmission going on in Miami and other places in South Florida, and I think that’s misleading,” he said.

He pointed out that, even during outbreaks of dengue fever— another virus transmitted by the Aedes aegypti— mosquito populations often won’t test positive for the virus.

“That, to me, indicates a pretty significant level of transmission that’s going on [in South Florida,]” Hotez said. “Nobody’s looking for Zika, and that’s a huge problem.”