ATLANTA— Georgia so far has escaped the type of Zika threat faced by Florida, which has been the epicenter of the virus in the continental United States.
However, public health officials say Zika will still pose problems in Georgia in coming years. And they note that some pregnant women in Georgia are infected with the virus, meaning they could give birth to babies with health problems.
Georgia has seen 104 “travel-related” cases of Zika since the first case was reported, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. So far, not one infection has been caused by in-state mosquitoes, the newspaper reported.
Though mosquito season may be over now, authorities say Zika will be a threat in 2017, and the virus could potentially be spread by local mosquitoes as it has spread in south Florida.
In some ways 2016 was a dry run for what Georgia could face in 2017 if the virus spreads by local mosquitoes as it has in Miami, the Atlanta newspaper reported. Awareness campaigns launched during the past year in Georgia are lessons that will carry over if that happens, officials said.
“This particular mosquito season, even though we’ve seen low numbers of mosquitoes that can carry the virus, it doesn’t mean that next season will be the same,” said Chris Kumnick, interim director of environmental health for the Georgia Department of Public Health. “It doesn’t diminish the risk of managing that hazard.”
The ongoing drought that’s spread across Georgia in the past eight months is one factor that helped the state avoid an outbreak like the one in south Florida, officials said. Another factor was a war for dominance between the two types of mosquitoes that carry the virus.
By late spring, Georgia’s state health department had relaunched its “Tip ‘n Toss” campaign, a mosquito control effort aimed at homeowners and businesses. People were told to remove all standing water from their bird baths, truck beds, patio furniture and any other outside containers bigger than a bottle cap. A teaspoon of water is enough for mosquitoes to successfully lay eggs, Georgians were warned.
But by the end of October, Georgia was well below its annual rainfall totals. Atlanta, Athens, Columbus and Macon all had below 33 inches of rain, anywhere from 12 to 16 inches below their respective 30 year averages. That, coupled with a cooler spring statewide and lower humidity levels in early summer, drove mosquito populations down.
Georgia monitors the insects’ population with light traps around the state. Epidemiologists extrapolate the potential number of the insects in the area based on the number of mosquitoes caught in the traps.
In particular, epidemiologists were looking for the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus breeds, the primary carriers of the disease. For the last five to seven years, the Aedes aegypti population has been dwindling, said Kumnick. That mosquito is responsible for Miami’s Zika outbreak. It is the most efficient in spreading the virus because it only feeds on humans.
In Georgia, the only place the aegypti was found was in Muscogee County; until late September, only 14 of that type had been found. Along the Georgia coast, where some thought a local outbreak might originate, the last time the aegypti was found in traps was 2012 in Chatham County, Kumnick said.
Earlier this month, Georgia requested an additional $800,000 from the $1.1 billion federal Zika bill passed by Congress earlier this fall, said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the state public health department.
That money will go toward preparedness for next year, officials said. Though the mosquitoes may be just about gone this season, their eggs are not. Those eggs over winter, wet or dry, and will be ready to hatch as soon as the weather warms next summer.