As Louisiana residents look east to the Zika outbreak in Florida, local health and mosquito abatement officials say they are preparing for the worst by throwing everything they can at preventing a similar situation here.

No mosquito that has been tested in Louisiana has carried the disease yet, though as of Friday 19 people in the state have been diagnosed with Zika after having traveled to other areas. If a certain type of mosquito bites someone with Zika, the mosquito can undergo a days-long transformation and start carrying the virus and infecting others they bite.

"We are acutely aware that we have all the ingredients in Louisiana, particularly in that southern part … with the very next step possibly being local transmission," said Dr. Frank Welch, the Louisiana Department of Health community preparedness medical director leading the agency's Zika prevention efforts.

So far, Baton Rouge is at a somewhat reduced risk in relation to New Orleans for the virus. Experts are most worried the Aedes aegypti, or "yellow fever mosquito," which has not been located in East Baton Rouge Parish in three years, said Baton Rouge Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control Director Todd Walker.

The yellow fever mosquito is, however, prevalent around Lake Pontchartrain and Orleans and Jefferson parishes. And another type of mosquito that has been located around Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Aedes albopictus or "Asian tiger mosquito," is also believed to be able to carry and transmit the disease.

People across the state should remain vigilant, Welch said.

"You shouldn't live in Baton Rouge and say, 'oh we're totally fine,'" he said.

Researchers are still determining the effects of Zika, about which little was known before stories of birth defects in babies born to women carrying the disease in South American countries caused concerns worldwide.

Walker and Welch said Louisiana has been well-served by robust local mosquito abatement programs already trained to fight mosquitoes that can carry dangerous viruses, like West Nile. They said Louisiana has more mosquito abatement programs just in the southern region than many other places have statewide, and that mosquito abatement programs already have the chemicals and traps on hand they need.

"That treatment and the mosquitoes that we are directing those applications to are the mosquitoes that can potentially transmit the Zika virus," Walker said.

Welch said the fear is that one of the yellow fever mosquitoes will bite someone who has Zika, and then the local mosquito will start carrying it and spreading it across the state.

"When the mosquito bites a person with Zika, the Zika actually has to go through a transformative process within the mosquito," Welch said. "It kind of cooks within the mosquito for seven days and then the mosquito can go and spread it."

He said the 19 people in Louisiana who had their diagnoses of Zika confirmed after traveling to other places are just the tip of the iceberg. Four out of five people infected with the virus have no side effects, meaning the 19 people tested were the minority who did not feel well and whose doctors suspected that they could have Zika, Welch said.

Though the side effects are similar to hay fever for most people with Zika, the real worry is for pregnant women whose babies could develop birth defects from the virus, Welch said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the state $400,000 earlier this week to locate, monitor and follow up with pregnant women who may have been exposed to Zika.

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The CDC also awarded the state $2 million a few weeks ago to ramp up epidemiology and laboratory capacity to help detect and monitor people with Zika, and the agency gave the state $400,000 a few months ago for general emergency preparedness and planning.

But the money still has not been enough. Welch said Louisiana would have been better served by having federal money six months ago to begin proactively preventing the transmission of Zika.

Congress recessed in July without approving money to fight Zika after President Barack Obama's administration requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding earlier this year to fight the disease.

Welch said the state needs extra money to fight Zika as soon as possible. He said the state Department of Health has shifted money from other health threats — like Ebola — toward Zika, but the department still needs more funds to communicate to the public about the risks of the disease and how to prevent infection.

In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration set aside $500,000 this week for the Zika threat. In Baton Rouge, Mayor-President Kip Holden's administration has not yet set aside any money for Zika, but Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said local government maintains fund balances the city could dip into to fight Zika if needed. 

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Welch expects Zika to be a problem for years ahead, but said federal money could help researchers produce a vaccine, thereby lowering the most immediate risk for pregnant women.

But he and Walker agreed that people can take steps to prevent mosquitoes that may carry Zika from biting them: at least once a week drain any water that has pooled outside in containers ranging in size from tires and wheelbarrows to eggshells and bottle caps. And they agreed anyone going outside should wear insect repellent and long sleeves.

 

Pregnant women should also avoid sexual contact with anyone who has spent time in one of the areas where Zika has been spreading, including most of South America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Mexico and the Pacific Islands.

Walker said people should spend time inside, with their air conditioners running and their windows closed. And he said Baton Rouge's mosquito abatement and rodent control is one of the few agencies that will visit residences and do mosquito treatments if people call and ask for them.

Mosquito abatement agencies statewide also routinely put out traps to monitor what kinds of mosquitoes are in the area and what diseases they carry.

"Really, the most effective thing is protecting your own radius," Welch said. "And what is unique about this situation is there's something people can do."


Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​