Infectious Disease Boss: Florida Probably Headed For A Zika Outbreak

May 30, 2016

Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health
Credit National Institutes of Health

Federal officials are all but certain there will be a Zika outbreak in the continental U.S. this summer.

The mosquito-borne virus continues to spread in Central and South America and the Caribbean. It’s linked to severe birth defects and other serious side effects.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, spoke with WLRN about what this all means for Floridians:

What Floridians can expect:

We project that we will see local outbreaks of disease, particularly in the Gulf Coast area around Florida, Texas and other states.

And the reason we say that is because we have prior experience with similar infections that are transmitted by precisely the same mosquito that transmits Zika. Over the past few years, we've had outbreaks of Dengue and Chikungunya in South America and the Caribbean and we've had local small outbreaks of Dengue and Chikungunya in Florida.

There was a very aggressive campaign for vector—or mosquito—control, and a very active campaign to protect people from mosquito bites. And so the local outbreak died down and went away.

One of the other things that we've started hearing from people in public health is worry about how this might potentially disproportionately affect people in poverty, especially in neighborhoods where there tends to be more standing water that mosquitoes can breed in and folks have less access to medical care if they do get sick. How are you handling that in your planning?

That is not necessarily an NIH research issue. We develop vaccines and drugs and try to understand the disease. And what you're talking about is, in fact, a real problem.

What one needs to do is to try and bolster up the local public health capabilities, particularly in the areas that you're talking about, because you're right: Poverty seems to be one of the risks for individuals. Because as you know, standing water, the inability to clean the environment, poverty, the inability to have access to air-conditioned rooms, to have screens that are intact and don't allow mosquitoes to enter—all of that becomes problematic in a poor area.

There is a proposed research trial that would release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Keys. What's your take on the role of that kind of research vs. other prevention, more traditional prevention methods, like creating vaccines or eliminating standing water?

The experimental ways that are gaining some interest and support right now are the modification of mosquitoes in a way that would not allow them to either spread the infection or even to breed properly. They hold some promise and there is a lot of interest in trying to prove that that is an acceptable way of controlling mosquitoes.

However, because of the concern that you're impacting the environment, it needs to be done in a carefully controlled way.

The way the folks at the federal level involved in this fight against Zika have been talking about it makes it  almost a certainty that this will be here this summer  and that there will be locally acquired cases in the continental U.S. How long do you think is the timeline before it could go away? Or is this just part of our new reality?

I'm one of the people that have been saying it, as many of my public health colleagues, that we are feeling that it is likely that we will see a local outbreak.

And it is likely that Florida, being in that area with the right climate in so close to the Caribbean,  will be a state, a region where there will be local outbreaks. Hopefully we'll be able to contain it and prevent it from becoming sustained and disseminated.