Zika has not been a huge threat in the U.S. up until this point...but all that might be changing, according to new research about the virus and its ability to spread.
Simply avoiding the sites where Zika is active while pregnant might not be enough, according to new research. Scientists now believe Zika will be present in as many as 50 U.S. cities come June.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the virus and is to blame for its spread in Latin America and the Caribbean, is set to make its way to the southern and eastern parts of the United States as temperatures increase—the warmer-than-average weather we'll likely experience this summer is preferential for these mosquitoes. According to mosquito and disease experts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., they're expected to populate along the East Coast as far north as New York and along the Southern point of the country as far west as Phoenix and Los Angeles.
According to the experts, winter conditions are too cold for the mosquitos to thrive in U.S. states, with the exception of Florida and Texas, which might explain why Zika hasn't been a huge presence in America up until now—but spring and fall conditions might usher in small populations of the Zika-carrying mosquitos. The researchers looked closely at travel patterns and established that cities in southern Florida and impoverished areas of Texas are particularly susceptible to this spread.
"This research highlights the complex set of human and environmental factors that determine whether a mosquito-borne disease is carried from one area to another, and how severely it affects different human populations," said Sarah Ruth, program director in National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. "By integrating information on weather, travel patterns, mosquito biology and human behavior, the project team has improved our ability to forecast, deal with, and possibly even prevent future outbreaks of Zika and other serious diseases."
The good news? The fact that this research was completed before the fact means scientists have a shot at controlling the virus. The bad news? Zika, though mild for most people it infects, has the power to cause microcephaly if it affects a pregnant woman. The CDC has warned pregnant women to avoid traveling to the areas that have been hit by the virus, so what are pregnant women to do if the virus hits places they live?
What you can do
"This research can help us anticipate the timing and location of possible Zika virus outbreaks in certain U.S. cities," Andrew Monaghan, NCAR scientist and lead author of the study, said. "While there is much we still don't know about the dynamics of Zika virus transmission, understanding where the Aedes aegypti mosquito can survive in the U.S. and how its abundance fluctuates seasonally may help guide mosquito control efforts and public health preparedness."
Monaghan also said that even if the virus does make its way to the US, it likely won't spread as widely as it has in Latin America and the Caribbean, as so many Americans live and work in air conditioned buildings that are tightly sealed. With that being said, it would be wise to monitor the virus' spread and speak to your doctor if it pops up in your area—and investing in some mosquito repellant might not be a bad idea.
"Even if the virus is transmitted here in the continental U.S., a quick response can reduce its impact," NCAR scientist Mary Hayden, co-author of the study, said.