Amid low risks in SWFL, Naples charity prepares to fight Zika virus abroad

FORT MYERS, Fla. – As the concern for the mosquito-borne Zika virus mounts, a Lee County epidemiologist says the risk is low for Floridians and a Collier County organization prepares to respond by spreading awareness in Haiti.

The World Health Organization declared Zika virus a global health emergency Monday and predicted that as many as 4 million people could become infected in 2016.

According to WHO, there have been 32 documented cases in the United States with three of those cases in Florida. Epidemiologist Jennifer Roth, with the Florida Department of Health in Lee County, says Florida residents’ chances of being infected with the Zika virus in the U.S. are low.

“Not every mosquito carries the virus but the ones that do carry Zika, they are in South Florida. But it’s important to know that of all of the mosquitoes here in Florida, none have been identified with having the virus,” says Roth.

That means the Floridians infected with Zika disease contracted the disease from traveling out of the country.

Roths says WHO’s declaration is more about bringing awareness to the growing health concern.

“By stating that it’s a global emergency they’re hoping to bring lots of awareness and resources to helping to combat the problem,” says Roth.

The rise in birth defects that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads has been casually linked to the virus but not yet scientifically proven.

“The Center [for] Disease Control is still trying to determine the risk for pregnant women. They’re encouraging them to not travel to these countries because they’re unsure if there’s an increase in birth defects after being infected,” says Roth.

While there is cause for concern for pregnant women in those countries with the disease, the Lee County Health Department says of all the viruses mosquitoes carry, Zika is far from the most dangerous.

“Almost 80-percent of people don’t show any symptoms, about half of the people infected only get a fever so it’s much more mild than other mosquito diseases,” says Roth.

Click here for more information about the Zika virus. 

Local charity to help fight Zika disease in Haiti

The virus is most prominent in South America and the Caribbean but could spread to the United States and Canada, according to WHO. In Port Au Prince, there have been at least five confirmed cases of the Zika virus, said Paula Prince, Hope for Haiti’s chief program officer.

Hope for Haiti has worked for the past 25 years to improve the quality of life for people in South Haiti. Prince said the organization has worked to combat the spread of other diseases via mosquitoes before.

“We have malaria and dengue, which also poses risk and a health concern,” Prince said. “So this just unfortunately adds another layer of mosquito-borne illness that is going to be a big threat to the population there.”

Zika virus poses the largest threat to pregnant women, who may deliver babies with deformities, said health officials. The risks of adverse symptoms are much slighter for most people, but Prince worries that Haitians will not be able to get the treatment they need if infected.

“In Haiti people really lack access to health care, to health education,” she said.

Now with cases of Zika on the rise, Prince said education is critical. Hope for Haiti will also provide items like mosquito nets and bug spray to people in Haiti.

“We’ll have these community health workers be able to provide essential materials in, often times, very rural communities where people don’t have access to TV and radio and other means of information. So that’s going to be our primary front,” Prince said.

Every year, Hope for Haiti’s public heath programs serve more than 12,000 people in 12 different communities in South Haiti, Prince said.

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