DALLAS, Texas — Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) Director Zachary Thompson expects local lab testing of the Zika virus to begin as quickly as next week in an effort to stay ahead of any potential outbreaks in North Texas.
Thompson confirmed on Monday that DCHHS is finalizing plans to test people for the disease locally. “Dallas County Health and Human Services is getting our lab up and running to do Zika testing next week. And that is going to help get faster turnaround on tests for those pregnant women who have traveled from those endemic countries,” he told CBS DFW.
Breitbart Texas reported Thompson recently stated DCHHS proactively pursued lab testing for the virus locally instead of having to send suspect blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which can take up to a few weeks to receive results.
The primary test group is pregnant women who traveled to one of the now 33 Zika-infested Latin American and Caribbean countries. They are at risk because of the suspected link between the virus and the neurological birth defect, microcephaly, where the unborn baby’s brain does not fully develop. However, DCHHS spokeswoman Erika Neroes clarified for Breitbart Texas on Monday that screening is not exclusive to only pregnant women and will also include “anyone who a doctor refers for Zika virus testing.”
Despite concerns, Thompson told the Dallas ABC-TV affiliate WFAA 8: “So you don’t need to worry about it. There’s no mosquitoes in North Texas area that’s carrying the Zika virus so you should not be concerned. It’s for those travelers who are returning back from those countries where the virus is at an outbreak.”
Still, the DCHHS issued the CDC’s interim guidelines advising men who return from travel in Zika affected areas to abstain from sex with their pregnant partners or wear condoms for the duration of the pregnancy.
Neroes said that Dallas County testing will apply to residents in the outlying Collin, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Henderson, Hunt, Kaufman, Navarro, Rains, Rockwall, and Van Zant counties. She advised individuals residing in other Texas counties to contact the CDC for information on labs that serve their areas.
Last week, Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) launched a Zika virus task force as did Governor Greg Abbott. The governor appointed a 31 member infectious disease disease preparedness and response task force to address the Zika virus, which Breitbart Texas’ Lana Shadwick reported.
Dallas may not be the only municipality about to begin local testing for Zika virus. Carrie Williams with the Texas Department of State Health Services told Breitbart Texas by email that “Texas is pursing the ability to test statewide at our lab in Austin, and we should have that up and running soon.” Williams also commented about the Dallas task force, “I think we are all in agreement that we need to work to do everything we can to prevent a Zika virus outbreak here. We’re supportive of local efforts to stay on top of this disease.”
Mosquito season in North Texas starts in May. There are 10 cases of Zika virus in the state presently. All but one was travel-related, contracted while in a Zika infested country. The outstanding Dallas County case turned out to the first US case of sexually transmitted Zika virus acquired through a man who contracted Zika while in Venezuela.
As local health officials gear up to test for Zika locally, they also await the results of four more suspected travel-related cases of the virus to return from the CDC.
Dallas has faced other challenging health threats in recent years. Breitbart Texas reported comprehensively on the 2014 Ebola scare, prompted by a Liberian man infected with the deadly West African virus. He brought the first case of Ebola into the U.S. through Dallas, which spread to two nurses treating him. He later died. Although contained, fears of the Ebola virus spreading into the general population created a lot of frayed nerves across the Metroplex for months. In 2012, Dallas County tackled a West Nile virus epidemic in which County Judge Clay Jenkins declared a state of emergency.
Also Monday, President Obama said he would ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the virus. The U.S. Olympic Committee recommended athletes concerned about the Zika virus outbreak in Latin American countries should not attend the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, although Breitbart News reported it will be winter in the southern hemisphere at the time. Officials hope the cooler weather will kill the Aedes aegypti mosquito known to carry Zika, diminishing its threat.
For now, the DCHHS continues to recommend reducing exposure to mosquito bites using the same techniques as during West Nile virus season, including using EPA approved repellants containing DEET.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.