Houston begins preparing to combat spread of Zika virus

By Debbie Strauss - Special Projects Producer, Haley Hernandez - Health Reporter

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas - The Zika virus is making its way across the globe, with countries as close as Mexico facing rapid spreading of the disease.

At least seven cases have been reported in the Houston area in people who have traveled to affected areas. Officials said it's only a matter of time before mosquitoes carrying Zika are in our back yards.

Legacy Community Health Centers in southwest Houston treats hundreds of pregnant women each day.

When it comes to Zika, their doctors, like Dr. Juan Franco, aren't taking any chances.

During each appointment, doctors talk with patients like Juana Rangel, who is 39 weeks pregnant, about the virus.

"I saw something on the news, but I'm not really sure what it is," Rangel said.

The clinic has posted flyers on its walls about Zika.

The scariest part of Zika is for pregnant women, whose babies are at risk for a severe birth defect called microcephaly.

"We want to avert a disaster that could happen nine months from now," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. "That disaster is seeing thousands of babies showing up in obstetrical wards and labor and delivery suites with microcephaly. I think we have to assume the worst-case scenario that Zika will be coming here."

Hotez said the Texas Gulf Coast has the right conditions.

The same factors that are in place in South America also exist in Houston: the right species of mosquito, the warm climate and poverty.

"There are probably dozens of neighborhoods in historical areas of Houston that we have to think about," said Hotez. "The historic wards are something we have to consider -- places like Aldine, Sunnyside.

"I can drive through parts of Houston that have a crushing level of poverty, where there is dilapidated housing, housing with no window screens or holes in the windows, or box-like air conditioners that are very porous. (It's) not just poor housing, but also the environmental degradation around that housing, which includes a lot of garbage piled up where discarded tires filled with water, or standing bodies of water left undrained."

Hotez said people need to take steps now to prevent an outbreak.

Harris County Mosquito Control is trapping mosquitoes across the county, and health officials will start looking for the presence of Zika virus in the mosquitoes.

So far they've found nothing, but it's still winter.

"I think we should also take the pre-emptive step of taking, looking, going into the poorer neighborhoods and looking at the factors that will help promote transmission," Hotez said. "That means more aggressive cleanup of garbage, of discarded tires on the side of the road. I think we need to start removing those now."

At Legacy Clinic, Franco is also talking prevention with his patients.

"(They should be) wearing some long sleeves, covering legs and arms, in addition to staying in air conditioned rooms, staying away from heated outdoor environments, where they can be at risk for mosquito bites," he said.

Bug repellant containing DEET is also a good idea but those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant are advised to discuss that with their doctors first.

2016 Click2Houston/KPRC2