On Friday morning, Health Commissioner Michelle S. Davis addressed members of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association about Zika’s effects on the territory and what business owners can do to help educate the public about the virus.
About 40 members of the association attended the general membership meeting at Emerald Beach Resort on St. Thomas. Many had questions for the commissioner, including about how to addresses mosquito breeding areas.
“Zika’s now hit the states, so it’s taken the lens off only the Caribbean so to speak,” said Lisa Hamilton, president of the association.
Davis began by giving attendees a general overview of how Zika spreads, emphasizing that 80 percent of people don’t show symptoms when they are infected, making the magnitude of the outbreak difficult to judge.
“We don’t really have an adequate count of how many people in the Virgin Islands have the virus,” Davis said.
According to Davis, there have been 18,000 cases of Zika in the three U.S. territories with local transmission – Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico’s first case of Zika was reported in December, while the Virgin Islands had its first case in January.
So far the U.S. has only seen 43 locally acquired cases with the number expected to grow due to local transmission occurring in Miami, while the mainland as a whole has had 3,000 travel-acquired cases.
Despite the growing number of cases around the world, Davis reminded that there’s no medicine or vaccine for Zika to date. For now people who come down with the virus are encouraged to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
The good news is that the National Institute of Health is funding research to find a vaccine, which is important given the developmental effects Zika can have on unborn babies and newer findings that the virus could also have adverse effects on adult brains, which has already been seen in mice.
Davis said that research about the different ways Zika can be spread is still ongoing but that it’s certain that the virus is spread through mosquito bites and sexually between both male and female intimate partners.
Recently Zika has been found in the tears of mice, which could indicate that other bodily fluids could also spread the virus. Davis said that, to date, there are no reports of it being spread through breastfeeding but research is ongoing.
As of Friday afternoon, the territory has had 299 lab confirmed cases of Zika and was still awaiting this week’s caseload update from the Centers of Disease Control. Currently all samples must be sent to the mainland for testing, but Davis said the V. I. Department of Health was just awarded $5 million to build a fully equipped testing lab, which should be completed by the end of the year.
Davis said a majority of the territory’s Zika cases have occurred on St. Thomas, explaining, “More standing water on St. Thomas is the crux of it as is higher population density on the island. St. Croix doesn’t have the same issues.”
One attendee asked Davis about what’s being done to address so-called mosquito “hot zones” on St. Thomas near Bovoni, Red Hook and other parts of the East End, saying that many hoteliers are concerned about trip cancellations. Davis told attendees to call into the Zika hotline at 340-712-6205 to report where there are standing water issues that promote mosquito breeding.
“In the last couple weeks, we’ve been spraying the landfills, which are usually only sprayed once a month,” Davis said, adding that there are about 100,000 tires in both of the territory’s two landfills. Health is hoping to purchase tire shredders to prevent water from gathering in them.
Attendees also asked about the possibility of introducing genetically modified mosquitoes to the territory, which could help decrease breeding rates. Davis said that there hasn’t been talk thus far of doing so and mentioned that there have been protests against even using truck fogging with chemicals in Miami.
“If we lose our ecology, we lose what people buy in St. Thomas,” said one concerned attendee who was against fogging. He added that introducing chemicals to the environment could jeopardize the island’s already struggling bee population.
Davis concluded that association members play a role in decreasing transmission rates through vector control activities and educating the public by dispersing information about how Zika spreads. “Getting as much information as possible to your customers is most important,” Davis said.