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Baltimore health commissioner pushes Zika education, prevention

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Accompanied by a group of seven doctors and experts, Baltimore city health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen used her podcast Friday to discuss with city residents how the Zika virus affects Maryland, what the government is doing to stop its spread and how people can protect themselves.

“There is no treatment for Zika – the best defense is prevention,” said Dr. Howard Haft of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who said the health department has been traveling to every county in the state. “Zika is not only coming, but it’s here in Maryland. Our goal is to … inform, educate and engage the public.”

More than 30 cases of Zika infections have been reported in Maryland, all of which were the result of travel and not locally incurred transmissions.

The state has put together a three-part approach to the disease: mosquito surveillance and destruction of its habitat; investigation and testing of people who have traveled recently; and community education and communication.

With a congressional stalemate over a $1.9 billion measure to combat the virus, Wen and other local experts called Zika a pressing public health issue that urgently requires government spending.

“The CDC has estimated a cost of up to $10 million per child with microcephaly,” said Dr. Rob Atlas, the chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Medical Center.  Atlas argued that the federal spending would be less costly than forcing families, communities and insurers to pay for treatment of the condition. Besides abnormally small heads and brains, other problems associated with the birth defect include loss of hearing, vision and severe intellectual impairment.

The health department, along with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is pushing initiatives like its Zika Awareness Week this past April and the distribution of Zika awareness bags with condoms, bug spray and more to help promote education and prevention. If anyone has traveled to any of the infected countries, Wen and the other experts recommended testing.

“It’s a debilitating disease,” Atlas said.  “If people understood how serious this was, they would be more serious about traveling and testing.”

Heather Goodman, a research specialist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, said that eliminating standing water (which functions as a breeding ground for mosquitos) is critical to prevention. She also suggested that people use an appropriate bug spray application when going outdoors.

For those infected, abstinence or use of condoms for at least a few weeks is recommended. Family planning, the doctors emphasized, is crucial to stopping sexual transmission of the disease.

“If 100 percent of pregnancies were planned, we would not have the risk of this preventable birth defect,” Atlas said. Eighty percent of those infected by the virus will never show symptoms, he added.

 

The state health department and department of agriculture will continue to monitor mosquito populations and spread information about the virus, officials said.

“Preventing mosquito bites and sexual transmission” is most important, Haft said. “If you understand risk and can protect yourself, you’ll be safe.”