"All up and down the Gulf Coast, in urban and poor areas, they're at risk for Zika,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, part of the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. “I've been saying Houston is at risk since last December.”
Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that causes microcephaly, prevents infants' brains from growing properly, resulting in abnormally small heads. The disease originated in Africa and has since spread to South America, Central America and the United States.
Houston has already seen Zika cases, but not a local outbreak. In January, Harris County health officials confirmed the first Zika patient in the county. In mid-July, doctors here discovered the first case of a Zika-infected baby born with microcephaly.
He said poor neighborhoods are particularly at risk, because residents there are less likely to live in homes with air conditioning or adequate screens to keep mosquitoes out. Nearby dumping stations, where mosquitoes breed, also increase the danger.
“I think there's a high likelihood that as the summer progresses, we could see a Zika transmission here,” Hotez said, adding that Texas is the epicenter for tropical diseases in the United States.
Local officials have taken steps to lessen the risk of Zika outbreaks, and Hotez urged them to better educate the public — especially pregnant women — about the disease.
Dr. Umair Shar, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said county physicians have been preparing for an inevitable Zika outbreak since first detecting the virus here seven months ago.
“It's a matter of if, not when,” Shar said. “We have the mosquitos, we have the climate, we have the people traveling back and forth to Zika-infected areas.” Shah cautioned that Zika is a disease Texas doctors have never treated before, and wasn't even on the radar of the American health community until 18 months ago.
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“We're learning new ways it's being transmitted and we need to keep our guard up,” he said.
Other public officials have raised the alarm about Zika. Mayor Sylvester Turner in June urged Gov. Greg Abbott to declare Zika a public health emergency. Turner also ordered city crews to clean up illegal dump sites which provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee begged her colleagues in Washington to appropriate money to combat Zika — but ultimately, the dysfunctional chambers couldn't agree on the details and went home for the summer.
Shah said he had hoped Congress would have approved funding for Zika prevention by now. He's managed to divert resources from other Harris County health programs in the meantime, but warns that Zika-related costs will skyrocket once local outbreaks begin.
“We've robbed Peter to pay Paul, locally, but there comes a point where you can't just keep doing that,” Shah said.