WASHINGTON — With officials warning that the Zika virus can travel up to six weeks after being first noticed, a citywide sanitization operation had prompted health officials to encourage residents and tourists to stay inside as much as possible on Monday. The Houston-area San Antonio Metro Transit System shut down all Metro stations and bus routes for 10 hours in a noontime-to-8 p.m. operation to disinfect them.
Except on this day, before the full-blown Metro sanitation in motion, a man wearing a red ski mask clung to a public park bench, glaring. About 30 feet away, a man on a bicycle shunned the mass of white coats and sprayers that blanketed the park. Without a mask in sight, others walked easily through the park, out of the sun and the danger zone of the mosquito that transmits Zika.
This wasn’t what the city of San Antonio had hoped for when it issued an advisory for residents who have never been vaccinated against the Zika virus, urging them to take precautions at home, saying that “if people are only intending to come to the area to enjoy the beautiful weather,” they should avoid unprotected sex or even public spaces, like restaurants and parks.
The city has warned the public for days that the Zika virus could linger after a person is infected, most likely in the places they spend the most time – hot and humid environments where mosquitoes thrive, and maybe even in the places they sleep. But after all the efforts to keep tourists and their babies safe, many of them were just determined to stay hydrated – and thus well-protected.
For eight days beginning this week, expectant mothers were advised to stay out of public places unless accompanied by someone carrying the Zika vaccine, especially during the daytime, when mosquitoes are most likely to breed. The risk of infection rose in those areas when pregnant women or those who were trying to get pregnant spent time outdoors, say health officials, whether sunbathing, riding their bikes, going to the beach or shopping, except those bringing a condom.
It might not make sense to worry about mosquitoes and chikungunya, a tropical disease transmitted to babies by blood-sucking mosquitoes, when the Washington region is blessed with something else: a warm winter. But for victims of a mosquito-borne disease, it’s all in the timing. While it’s true that the Zika virus has been mostly eradicated in the continental United States, there is no cure.
And it still may be spreading. The World Health Organization predicted on Monday that while Zika is declining in the Americas, Asia and Australia, “the vector is able to continue the virus transmission in small increments.” Researchers there predict the virus will spread slowly until the end of the year and early 2018, when cases will begin to appear in northern parts of the Pacific.
In San Antonio, the hours-long Metro sanitization effort could have a more significant impact, says Daniel Ruiz, a senior researcher at the Global Public Health Institute. That’s because it’s one of the largest public health operations in the area, at least as far as such health projects go, he said. And while it’s in sharp contrast to a vaccination campaign, it serves as a quick, so-called population-specific response that is quickly rolled out across a metro area.
Ruiz points out that “it’s obviously precautionary.” And in this case, as the world prepares for warmer weather, “it really makes good sense to keep the Zika virus under control.”
Though the numbers are small, their message has been impressive, especially since the Trump administration appears to be moving in the opposite direction: abandoning an international effort to fight Zika with millions of dollars – even when those dollars are so used that they don’t even go to local health departments, but rather to research for a new drug or vaccine.
It’s noteworthy that the state of Texas, which spent more than $200 million fighting the outbreak last year, passed a state law that requires public health providers to offer Zika vaccinations to pregnant women. But on the federal level, that’s become increasingly difficult.