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Experts converge in Charleston to spread answers about Zika virus

Zika virus. (Source: Raycom) Zika virus. (Source: Raycom)
CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) -

Experts from Johns Hopkins, the S.C. health department and MUSC led a community roundtable Friday to get the word out about Zika, a mosquito-borne virus.

The panel, “Zika: Z to A,” reviewed what Zika is, how people get infected and what complications are if someone gets infected, according to Dr. John Vena, of MUSC’s Department of Public Health.

The public was also invited to ask experts questions related to preventing infection and minimizing the risk of birth defects caused by Zika virus.

Doctors previously confirmed Zika virus is linked to microcephaly, a disease where babies are born with abnormally small heads. That is the “tip of the iceberg,” according to Dr. Irina Burd, MD, PhD, Director of Integrated Research Center for Fetal Medicine and Director of Research for the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

"We don't really know how long the virus may stay in the system, and how it can impact future human development,” Burd said.

Expert panelists also answered questions ranging from mosquito control to testing and transmission. Officials from the health department said they started a Zika task force 4 months ago; Michael Elieff, Dir. of Office of Public Health Preparedness for DHEC, said education is the key to prevention and cutting costs.

"The things that we can do today to help prevent it, to help mitigate it,” Elieff said, “These education programs will cut that cost significantly."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 691 cases of travel-associated were reported as of June 8; DHEC confirms 1 travel-related case in South Carolina. Officials said 127 tests for Zika have been negative, and 14 are still pending.

Maggie MacMillan, who formerly worked for DHEC as a disease intervention strategist, said grassroots outreach is integral to prevention.

"It's easy here on campus to get doctors and professionals here in one room,” MacMillan said. “The trick is getting it to the ground level community levels."

MacMillan said more funding may be needed to supplement South Carolina’s existing resources. The Obama administration requested $1.9 billion in February, to allow officials to continue Zika prevention efforts and begin studying long-term effects of people infected by the disease.

DHEC officials said there’s no indication if Congress will approve that spending, or if states would receive more funding for Zika efforts, as a result. Experts maintain public awareness is critical.

"The most important aspect of transmission is mosquito control and that we all need to do our part in our own communities with standing water and prevention of mosquito bites as you're outside," Vena said.
 
Experts confirmed Friday that no vaccine is available yet for Zika.

The health department said you can protect yourself with bug spray such as Deet to prevent mosquito bites. Experts also reiterated that information on the virus changes almost weekly so locals should do their best to stay informed.

"The more that we can understand about it, the better we can prevent the transmission of Zika and the complications," Vena said.

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