Despite lull in activity, area health officials say they will stay vigilant for Zika virus

Health officials from Texas and Tamaulipas gathered during the Third Annual State of Texas Active Response to Zika (STARZ) at the McAllen Convention Center.Officials exchanged information regarding arboviruses and other public health issues of mutual interest along the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday May 16,2019 in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Health officials in the Rio Grande Valley and Tamaulipas on Thursday warned about the ongoing dangers of the Zika virus, which is still a serious threat in South Texas after setting off a global health crisis in 2015.

After 18 Zika virus cases in Hidalgo County in 2017 and eight in 2018, county investigators have identified only one Zika virus infection in 2019.

“You have to stay ready,” said Eddie Olivares, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services.

To help health officials stay ready this week was the annual State of Texas Active Response to Zika conference held at the McAllen Convention Center, with attendees in town from Texas and Northern Mexico. The conference is appropriately set in Hidalgo County, one of nine Texas counties identified to be at a higher risk of spreading Zika due to the warm climate and favorable landscape for year-round mosquito activity, officials said.

“Although the majority of the Zika cases we have seen in the past two years have been travel-related,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, “the county has also had confirmed cases of locally-acquired Zika. This means that the mosquitoes that carry the virus are here.”

To combat that, experts on Thursday warned South Texas residents to not leave still water outside, to wear pants and long sleeve shirts and to ensure residences with windows have screens installed to avoid mosquito entry.

Experts in local government, Hidalgo County, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, among others, have spent years trying to raise awareness in the region of all things Zika, like explaining that the main way the virus spreads is through a bite from infected Aedes species mosquito. The virus can also by sexually transmitted to pass from a pregnant woman to her fetus, officials said.

“Zika infection during pregnancy can pose the risk for serious birth defects,” read a county fact sheet, which added that officials in Hidalgo County have also been conducting laboratory tests, totaling 38,500 of them from 2016 until April 22.

The city of McAllen for years has been tending to Zika, surveying “neighborhoods to identify and treat large areas of standing water that could serve as prime locations for mosquitoes to lay their eggs,” according to McAllen City Commissioner Omar Quintanilla.

The city has also used a Univar product with low odor, non-corrosive synthetic pyrethroid for controlling adult mosquitoes, one of the many Zika efforts previously led by the former health and code enforcement director in the city, Josh Ramirez, who was nicknamed the “Zika Czar” for his research and expertise on the subject.