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Zika

The Texas Infectious Disease Readiness Task Force

We have such a thing, and at a time like this that’s good to know.

Most Texans don’t regularly concern themselves with infectious diseases such as typhus, Ebola, Zika, or the plague. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, public health experts worry that tetanus and MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant skin infection, could become more prevalent.

Thanks to the establishment of the Texas Infectious Disease Readiness (TX IDR) task force, citizens now have access to online courses and other resources geared at increasing the public’s knowledge of a variety of infectious diseases.

The program was launched in late 2014 when then-Gov. Rick Perry signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on Infectious Disease Readiness and Response due to an increase in infectious disease cases in Texas.

Typhus, which is transmitted by fleas and potentially fatal, infected only 27 Texans in 2003. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention In 2016, the state saw 364 cases, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. With so few cases in the past, typhus’ symptoms – chills, muscle aches, a rash, and vomiting – were likely mistaken for something else.

Described by some as a “Texas-specific CDC,” the task force gathers information from many sources and adapts it to Texas’ needs. In addition to sharing information on current cases, the TX IDR designs online courses specific to the diseases seen in Texas, explaining how the diseases are transmitted, who is at risk, and how to control their spread.

The need for such an initiative became evident after the first cases of Ebola were diagnosed in the United States.

[…]

In addition to educating traditional health care professionals, the program also targets first responders, who typically have limited access to resources about infectious diseases, [Dr. Jan E. Patterson, chair of TX IDR] said. With the establishment of the TX IDR website, they can now learn about infectious disease readiness and potentially avoid contracting a deadly virus.

We know about typhus. As one of those Texans that don’t regularly concern themselves with infectious diseases, I’m glad to know someone does.

The mosquitopocalypse is coming

It just keeps getting better and better.

Harvey’s rain may have left Houston behind, but there’s another storm headed our way. It’s a cloud of mosquitoes, which breed in standing water and soon will be hatching by the millions.

“It’s going to be horrible in two or three weeks,” said Cory Barcomb, operations manager for Mosquito Squad, a Houston mosquito control service. He’s bracing for the onslaught, bringing in heavy-duty insecticide sprayers from Austin that can cover a whole neighborhood in a couple of hours.

You know all that standing water we have right now? Mosquitoes are laying eggs in it right now – as many as 500 eggs at a time. In a week or two, all those eggs will start to hatch. And before long, we’ll see a mosquito boom that will have us swatting and scratching for weeks.

“There’s no way around them,” said Dr. Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County Public Health’s mosquito and vector control division. “Once they find water, they’re going to lay eggs.”

[…]

Our local mosquitoes could be carrying five different viruses, according to Debboun: West Nile, St. Louis encephalitis, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

That’s why Harris County Public Health will be studying the mosquito population to figure out where they’re the most concentrated, then strategically spraying insecticide to get rid of them.

Mosquito Control staffers will head out across Harris County soon after this new round of mosquitoes has hatched, Debboun said. They’ll do what’s called a “landing count,” which involves a brave Mosquito Control technician standing still for one minute and counting the number of mosquitoes that land on him. If it’s five to 10, there’s not a problem. If it’s 100 or more, Debboun said, “that’s a situation.”

Oh my God, there is no amount of money you could pay me to do that job. Those people are damn heroes. There will be insecticide sprayed from trucks and possibly planes to combat the buzzing menace, and we didn’t all scratch ourselves to death following other large flood events, so maybe we’ll survive this time, too. Cover yourself in DEET and empty any standing water you have on your property in the meantime. God help us all.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

Still asking for Zika help

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Following reports of the first local mosquito-borne Zika infections in the U.S., Mayor Sylvester Turner is once again calling on the state of Texas and federal government to provide financial assistance to help fight it.

“There are already 14 confirmed cases of Zika virus being transmitted locally in Florida,” said Mayor Turner. “I believe it is just a matter of time before Texas is in a similar situation. Cities are the front line of defense in this battle, and we could use some financial assistance from the state and federal governments. It makes no sense to wait until there is an outbreak here.”

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been conducting weekend sweeps of illegal dump sites that can serve as mosquito breeding grounds. To date, 3,433 tons of debris and 29,130 tires have been hauled away at an annual cost of $3.6 million. With some additional state or federal funding, the City could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Last week, the Houston Health Department was awarded $1.5 million by the Centers for Disease Control to use for surveillance, testing and prevention. The City is already in discussion with Harris County on the best way to maximize the use of these dollars.

Houston has documented 12 travel-associated cases of Zika virus infection since the start of the outbreak in Latin America earlier this year. Harris County has confirmed another 12 cases – 11 are travel related and one is an infant with microcephaly born to a mother who contracted the virus while traveling outside the United State. There are a total of 80 confirmed Zika cases in Texas. At this time, there is no evidence the virus has infected mosquito populations in the state.

In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, the City has public service announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Residents are encouraged to follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Wear long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellant containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

This is not the first time Mayor Turner has asked for this help. I doubt the Republican-controlled Congress is any more interested in taking action now than it was then, but it can’t hurt to ask. Better to keep expectations low, though.

First baby affected by Zika born in Texas

Won’t be the last, unfortunately.

A baby boy born with microcephaly in Harris County is the first Zika-affected infant in Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday.

The baby’s mother contracted Zika in Colombia, and the baby was infected in the womb, according Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. The baby was born a few weeks ago in Harris County outside of Houston, and tests confirmed that he had Zika on Monday, Shah said.

In the state health department news release, State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt called the news “heartbreaking.”

“This underscores the damage Zika can have on unborn babies,” Hellerstedt said. “Our state’s work against Zika has never been more vital.”

[…]

Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University, predicted that the baby born with microcephaly in Harris County represents the start of a wave of such births in Texas, as pregnant women who contracted the virus in Latin America deliver children with an elevated risk of birth defects.

If transmission of Zika begins on the Gulf Coast, Hotez said, there could be a second wave of Zika-affected births months from now.

“There’s a good chance that the transmission of Zika has already started in Texas,” Hotez said. “But without federal funds, it’s hard to have the resources to look for it, diagnose it, and do the mosquito control.”

Let’s be clear about why Congress hasn’t acted on Zika funding. A functional Congress would simply appropriate some money for the problem and be done with it. Our Republican-led Congress sees an opportunity to attack Planned Parenthood and promote the Confederate flag. And so here we are. Let’s hope that count of Zika-infected babies doesn’t go up too much while they’re on vacation.

Building a better mosquito trap

I love this story.

Microsoft Mosquito Drone

Harris County officials are teaming up with tech-giant Microsoft to find and research mosquitoes that could carry the Zika virus or other mosquito-borne diseases, the county public health department said Tuesday.

As part of “Project Premonition,” 10 traps will be placed across Harris County. Each trap can transmit data on when the mosquito was trapped, the temperature, barometric pressure and humidity during capture, according to a statement from the public health department.

Drones could then be used to help detect mosquito hot spots and to set and collect traps, according to the news release. The data collected could be used to predict when and where certain mosquito-borne diseases occur, ideally before they occur.

“We believe autonomous systems and cloud computing have enormous potential to improve monitoring and prediction,” said Microsoft lead researcher and project lead Ethan Jackson in the statement. “This partnership with Harris County’s state-of-the-art mosquito control program creates a unique opportunity to apply and shape next-generation technologies together with public health leaders.”

The computerized traps can filter out other flies and insects that aren’t being targeted. County officials emphasized that mosquitoes carrying Zika had not yet been detected in Harris County.

Follow that link in the story for the techie details behind this. Why not study mosquitoes to see where they are most prevalent, and base your response on that rather than spraying indiscriminately? Makes sense to me. Just please don’t anyone take a potshot at one of the drones if you see one in your neighborhood. It’s a bad idea on many levels.

No athlete should go to the Olympics if they don’t want to

Spare me.

It’s like a Draymond Green kick straight to your special place.

The world’s grandest athletic stage, providing a public platform for the greatest basketball stars alive to unite for a single cause.

Cherished history and untouchable names – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson – forever attached to your personal résumé.

The nation tuning in, a country coming alive and the summer of 2016 defined by draping a gold medal across your neck in Rio de Janeiro,instead of another boring offseason dedicated to free-agency rumors and daily tweets.

But Cleveland’s King won’t be there. Neither will the Rockets’ Weird Beard, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and a ridiculously self-absorbed collection of the NBA’s finest.

LeBron James gets a pass. He did what’s never been done. He returned decades of lost belief to the misnamed mistake by the lake. He can now do pretty much whatever the heck he wants until training camp.

The rest of the Association’s me-first, brand-second, country-third superstars could use a week-long reminder course in why they’re actually playing basketball for a living.

That’s as far as I got before my eyes rolled so far back in my head that I could no longer read what was on the page. I mean, gosh, can anyone think of any reason why someone might hesitate before getting on a plane for Rio this summer? Anyone at all? Just so Brian Smith – who mostly wrote this because he doesn’t like James Harden – knows, this was the first result that came up in Google for “rio olympics”. Yeah, yeah, Olympic ideals, representing your country, blah blah blah. I get that, and no doubt that is more than enough to lure plenty of athletes this summer. But good Lord, man. Have some perspective. And if you yourself go to Rio – are you going, Brian Smith? – I’d advise you to visit your doctor first and follow his or her advice to the letter. Maybe James Harden and Steph Curry and the rest of those NBA players did exactly that themselves.

Mayor Turner asks for Zika help

From the inbox.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

With members of the local legislative delegation at his side and an illegal tire dump as the backdrop, Mayor Sylvester Turner called on the state of Texas to declare the Zika virus a public health emergency and dedicate funds toward local efforts to fight it.

“Local governments are in a position to do the door-to-door, neighborhood-by-neighborhood hard work necessary to mitigate Zika,” said Mayor Turner. “There is a critical need for help in paying for this massive effort. We have programs already underway and would welcome state help in funding them. Let’s work together to eradicate this threat.”

Mayor Turner is requesting assistance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Solid Waste Disposal Fees Account, which currently has a balance of $130 million. Under changes made by the legislature in 2007, the fund may be used for an immediate response to or remediation of an emergency that involves solid waste.

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been cleaning up illegal dump sites to help reduce mosquito breeding sites and combat the spread of Zika. They have already hauled 3,000 tons of debris and 19,000 tires away. The effort is expected to cost $3.6 million this year. With additional funding, the City of Houston could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Zika is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is found in Houston and southeast Texas. Infection during pregnancy causes microcephaly and other brain malformations in some babies. Infections in adults have been linked to Guillain–Barré syndrome.

The city has launched a multi-pronged approach to fighting the Zika virus. In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, there are also educational announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Now that mosquito season is here, residents need to be vigilant about protecting themselves from being bitten. Follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Dress in long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellent containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

Seems like a reasonable request to me. The state made its own request for assistance to the feds, so fair’s fair. We’ll see how they respond. The Chron and the Press have more.

Don’t let the mosquitoes bite

That’s going to be a challenge.

Mosquitoes don’t breed in flood waters. They drown in them, said Dr. Mustapha Debboun, director of the Mosquito Control Division at Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.

But it’s after the flood waters subside that mosquito breeding becomes an issue, he said. And with the Zika virus on everyone’s radar over the past few months, Debboun said they’ll be heading into neighborhoods to mount an education campaign once the high waters recede in order to keep the spread of the virus under wraps as much as possible.

[…]

Debboun said that, even after the floods, there is no need to panic. There are several things that people can do to keep potential Zika-carrying mosquitoes away. For one — and this one’s a bit of a no-brainer — people should wear insect repellent, especially as the temperatures begin to rise in May, Debboun said, if they don’t want to get bitten. Most importantly, though, people need to drain any small or large containers that filled with water during the flood, Debboun said. The mosquitoes like to breed in shallow, stagnant water, whether in big buckets or flower pots or even a water bottle left outside. And mosquitoes that carry Zika are exactly the types of mosquitoes that live in your backyard, who like these environments. “People have to help us in denying mosquitoes the chance to breed in those containers full of water,” Debboun said.

At a meeting in Greenspoint Wednesday night, Mayor Sylvester Turner also urged residents not to leave wet debris and ruined furniture from their homes out on the curb or their front lawns so as to not attract mosquitoes. He said Waste Management has pitched in by providing dozens of large dumpsters in those worst-hit neighborhoods.

As the story notes, Zika is already here. How much of a problem it becomes remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be plenty of spraying and other mitigation done by the city and the county, but do your part, too. Get rid of standing water, and use mosquito repellent. Let’s try to keep the little bastards under control.