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Forsyth officials on alert for Zika virus

Tips to protect against Zika

• Wear light-colored long sleeve shirts, long pants and socks when possible.

• Wear bug spray with at least 20 percent DEET.

• Individuals should also protect themselves when outdoors by wearing light-colored long-sleeve shirts, long pants and socks.

• Use EPA-registered mosquito repellents when necessary and follow label directions and precautions closely.

• When possible, limit your outdoor activities at sunrise, sunset and early in the evening when mosquitoes are most active.

• Tuck shirts into pants and pants into socks to cover gaps in your clothing where mosquitoes can get to your skin.

• Use head nets, long sleeves and long pants if you venture into areas with high mosquito populations, such as salt marshes.

• Get rid of standing water in rain gutters, old tires, buckets, plastic covers, toys or any other container where mosquitoes can lay eggs.

• Empty and change the water in bird baths, fountains, wading pools, rain barrels and potted plant trays at least once a week to eliminate potential mosquito habitats.

• Drain temporary pools of water or fill with dirt.

• Keep swimming pool water treated and circulating.

• Replace your outdoor lights with yellow “bug” lights, which tend to attract fewer mosquitoes than ordinary lights. The yellow lights are not repellents, however.

*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency

FORSYTH COUNTY – Fears of the Zika virus spreading in the United States have reached critical mass as Forsyth County public health officials and environmental advocates work to contain cases reported in Florida this week.

Authorities have been spraying insecticides in Miami’s Wynwood arts district, where more than a dozen people have become infected with the first mosquito-transmitted cases in the mainland U.S. The country has been girding for months against the epidemic coursing through Latin America and the Caribbean.

Zika poses a serious risk to pregnant women and their babies such as severe brain-related defects. It is spread primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito, although sexual transmission has been documented.

While CDC officials are hopeful the disease will not become widespread in the continental U.S. via local mosquito transmission, they are closely monitoring states in the southern half of the country.

Dave Palmer, spokesman for the District 2 Public Health office that covers Forsyth, said surveillance coordinators, who are supervised by the state environmental health office, have been hired to work closely with local and district environmental health specialists.

Their responsibilities include establishing mosquito surveillance locations, setting up traps and collecting mosquitoes, mosquito identification and complaint response. They also provide support to environmental health teams by assisting with community assessments and community education programs.

Palmer said health officials are trying to get the word out to all residents that they need to check their property, drain any standing water and remove items that can trap water. This includes conditions such as clogged drainage ditches, gutters or other methods of water drainage from property. Residents should also remove items like empty containers (flower pots, buckets, tires) that can trap and hold water.

“In short, if an item can trap and hold water, it should be maintained properly or removed,” Palmer said. “Screens on windows and doors should also be in good repair; and shrubs, grass and weeds should be trimmed or removed because they provide dark, damp areas for mosquitoes to rest.”

Old, discarded tires can be a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes that can transmit diseases, including the Zika virus, according to Juliet Cohen, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Mosquitoes lay eggs in water collected in tires, and the tires provide a safe and protected habitat for the eggs to hatch, grow and emerge as adults.

Tires and mosquito-borne illnesses are intimately related as a result of imported tires and the arrival of a new species of mosquito in the 1970s.

In April, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper pulled nearly 200 scrap tires from the Chattahoochee River.

The Riverkeeper is urging changes to Georgia’s scrap tire policies to protect Georgians from mosquitoes and the serious diseases they may transmit.

Gainesville Public Works Director David Dockery said street division crews have mosquito control “dunks” available for residents at no charge.

"Residents are first urged to physically eliminate isolated areas of standing water, such as flower pots, outside bowls, stagnate bird baths, etc.,” Dockery said. "These mosquito dunks are best used in puddles or ditches on the ground in low-lying areas that take several days to dry up after a rain. They are not effective in large or flowing bodies of water, such as creeks, lakes or ponds."

What’s next?

On Monday, the CDC instructed pregnant women to avoid the neighborhood in Miami, marking what is believed to be the first time in the agency’s 70-year history that it warned people not to travel somewhere in the U.S.

The Obama administration warned Congress Wednesday that money to fight the Zika virus is on the verge of running out amid political stalemate on Capitol Hill.

In a letter to key lawmakers, the secretary of Health and Human Services said the National Institutes of Health would exhaust its resources for vaccine development by month’s end. The letter from HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said that without additional money the second phase of clinical trials would be delayed, and Americans would have to wait longer for a vaccine.

Congress gridlocked over President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion emergency spending request after House Republicans added language on Planned Parenthood and other issues that was unacceptable to Democrats. Then lawmakers left town for a seven-week summer recess, and they won’t be back until September.

Republicans have been downplaying the urgency of the issue, questioning why the administration has not spent more than $350 million already on hand, including money redirected from the Ebola fight.

The Centers for Disease Control has $222 million available for domestic response, including front-line assistance to states and localities. Of that, nearly $100 million will have been provided by week’s end, and resources will be virtually exhausted by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, the letter says.

The NIH started Phase I clinical trials Wednesday of a DNA-based vaccine, but without more funding, the second phase on that vaccine and others will be delayed. Additional research and development also may be constrained as NIH’s $47 million in repurposed funding runs out by the end of this month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.