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U.S. Doctors Prepare For Arrival Of Zika Virus


For more on how public health officials in the Houston area are handling Zika, we called Umair Shah. He leads the Harris County Health Department. He says in addition to educating residents, the county is targeting the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika.

UMAIR SHAH: We've set traps throughout Harris County, but what our program is really designed to do is to pick those mosquitoes that are caught in those traps, bring them back to our virology lab and then to test those mosquitoes. And where we light up for disease, where we know that there is, in this case, Zika virus, then we can design interventions against that.

The primary intervention for the Aedes mosquito is source reduction. We have to reduce the sources of breeding. We cannot spray our way out of this. We have to really rely on people and communities to be able to get the refuse and the litter and the used tires out of harm's way so we can actually get those breeding grounds removed.

MCEVERS: What do these traps look like?

SHAH: Combination of net and - there are certain traps that actually - they've got water in them. And sort of what it does, is it really simulates what is attractive to a mosquito. So one of the traps, for example, might smell like kind of a dirty gym bag. And that may not be what you or I would want to be around, but a mosquito loves it, right?

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SHAH: So a mosquito loves it, and that's exactly what you're trying to do, is to - boom, you grab it, and then you can bring it back to the lab and test it.

MCEVERS: So far, the case of Zika in Houston were related to travel. How quickly is your department able to act once you confirm a case of locally transmitted Zika?

SHAH: What we've been saying is that this is not a matter of if. This is a matter of when. We don't know when is, unfortunately, and so for us, it's really being as nimble as we can with this response. So we never thought we were going to be talking about, you know, sexual precautions for a mosquito-born illness - right? - those kinds of things.

You know, I think that's the real - where the rubber meets the road - is really putting all sorts of efforts together. We're fortunate in our department that we have animal health. We have insect experts, and we have the human health aspect. There are environmental people know the community from - you know, here's high weeds and some other things that may be breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

But also our epidemiologists who are disease detectives, are mosquito control inspectors and going to a neighborhood and be able to take those three different vantage points and be able to respond to Zika, I think is really key

MCEVERS: So you'd say you're ready.

SHAH: You know, I don't know if anybody is ready right now. It is really important for us to increase some of the resources and the funding to local communities, especially in states such as Texas where, you know, we have higher risk. And as great as a mosquito-control program that we have, we are 98 percent funded by local taxpayer dollars, and why that's important is that if you have that kind of reliance on local resources, you really need supplementation by what's happening at the federal or state level. And those resources need to be brought to the table to local communities such as ours so that we can actually fight the bite.

MCEVERS: Congress, of course, hasn't approved the Obama administration's request for $1.9 billion on this issue.

SHAH: We're hopeful that something's going to happen at the federal level. You know, I can't tell you exactly what the dollars are that any community is going to need because there are so many unknowns about Zika, but I will say that we need to really be very commonsensical and smart about how we get those dollars to local communities.

Vaccines are good. Research is good, and we appreciate all the work with our academic partners. But local public health is where it happens.

MCEVERS: Umair Shah is executive director of public health and environmental services in Harris County, Texas. Thank you very much for your time today.

SHAH: Really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.