Hawaii gets $1M to fight Zika

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KAILUA-KONA — The Zika virus has yet to bare its proverbial teeth in Hawaii, but authorities are assuming a proactive approach in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the dengue fever outbreak, which plagued the state for months between September and March.

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KAILUA-KONA — The Zika virus has yet to bare its proverbial teeth in Hawaii, but authorities are assuming a proactive approach in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the dengue fever outbreak, which plagued the state for months between September and March.

To that end, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday it would afford more than $1 million in federal grant funding to Hawaii to combat Zika.

“This funding will help support efforts to protect Hawaii from Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in a news release. “Being able to protect ourselves from the threat of a locally transmitted Zika infection means being prepared and knowing how to respond.”

The money will be spent to implement statewide training exercises — simulating Zika outbreaks and testing response plans.

A communication specialist will also be hired to engage in public outreach and Department of Health (DOH) web pages will undergo an overhaul.

“The single most important piece is the communications piece,” said Dr. Virginia Pressler, DOH director. “Having that dedicated communications officer that can help make sure the message is getting out effectively to the community in a timely manner.”

Funds will also be distributed to conduct community outreach through public and private sector partnerships, as well as to develop educational programming for at-risk populations including pregnant women and travelers.

Finally, monies will be distributed to engage and empower youth in disease prevention messaging.

“(The funding) is pretty critical, because we have limited staffing and limited resources,” said Dr. Sarah Park, Hawaii state epidemiologist and chief, Disease Outbreak Control Division. “While we continue to do what we’ve always been doing, being more solid in terms of having a good vector control program … and good communication is so critical.”

Zika — the virulent and stealthy pest, which manifests symptomatically in only one of every five infected persons — has yet to occur locally in Hawaii, or anywhere in the 50 states. Five cases of Zika have been reported in Hawaii, but all have originated outside its borders.

The current risk of transmission then involves a traveler bringing the virus into the state, suffering a mosquito bite and that mosquito acting as a vector for the disease to other human hosts.

“We, all of us, can protect our state whenever we travel by being really mindful of diseases out there and how to protect ourselves,” Park said. “When we come back, within those two weeks, we (need to) make sure we monitor ourselves (to avoid) being patient zero.”

Only the two types of Aedes mosquitoes — A. aegypti and A. albopictus — carry and transmit Zika, but both are found in Hawaii, Pressler said.

The A. albopictus mosquito is the more common mosquito throughout the islands and is less likely to spread the disease. There have been pockets of A. aegypti mosquitoes identified in Hawaii, however, mostly on the Big Island.

Despite that, Hawaii’s risk for a Zika outbreak is low. That risk is mitigated further because crowded living conditions are less prevalent in the state than in places such as Brazil and Puerto Rico, where Pressler described the virus as endemic.

Zika-carrying mosquitoes prefer to live indoors in dark, wet places and need only a small amount of pooled water to breed. Living inside crowded domiciles unprotected by screens on doors and windows can cause the virus to spread rampantly.

“When you ask about how likely is it for (a Zika outbreak) to happen in Hawaii, I think it’s unlikely,” Pressler said. “We do not have those living conditions in Hawaii. People without screens, we do have that on the Big Island, but they’re less likely to be in cramped and crowded conditions where hundreds of thousands of people can be exposed to these mosquitoes.”

Pressler added protecting one’s self against the spread of Zika can be accomplished in the exact same way as it was with dengue fever.

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The only real difference between the situation Hawaii faced with dengue and the situation it might face with Zika is the increased risk to pregnant women, as Zika has recently been linked with microcephaly. Microcephaly is neurological disorder that causes deformity in newborn children, often accompanied by developmental issues.

“Consequences are so that it becomes a much more alarming situation, but the approach (to prevention) is much the same,” Pressler said. “It’s still having people protect themselves against mosquito bites and trying to get rid of mosquitoes around the home.”

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