Partners from the territory’s tourism industry learned about keeping visitors safe and informed amidst the ongoing Zika virus outbreak during a seminar at the St. Thomas campus of the University of the Virgin Islands on Thursday morning.
Organized by the V.I. Department of Health, V.I. Department of Tourism, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s San Juan Quarantine Station, about a dozen tourism industry professionals attended the session that focused on how to most effectively answer visitors’ questions about the outbreak, as well as how to prevent mosquito breeding.
According to Misty Ellis, public health advisor for the CDC in San Juan, the informational session was also aimed at giving tourism industry partners an opportunity to learn about professional response strategies to the outbreak. On Wednesday, a seminar was held on St. Croix.
“The Department of Health along with the Department of Tourism want to ensure industry representatives have the necessary tools and resources to respond to customer and client concerns,” Ellis said.
During the seminar, Lisa Hamilton, president of the USVI Hotel and Tourism Assoc., and others expressed concern over the World Health Organization’s lifting of Zika as a global health emergency, since hotels and other tourist-based businesses might ease up on precaution measures like treating for mosquitoes or offering free repellent.
As of last month, the WHO says Zika will be treated as a dangerous mosquito-borne disease like malaria or dengue fever given the virus will likely be seasonal and return to countries that have Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are known to carry Zika. This signals that the organization is setting in for a long-term fight against the virus.
Hamilton said that Health and the CDC have been very proactive about getting Zika information out to industry partners and added that it’s important to let the local tourism industry know that the fight against Zika is far from over, despite the lifting of the emergency status.
Experts on Zika infections and mosquito control presented to educate attendees about the virus. Irene Guendel, surveillance officer for Health, gave an overview on Zika, including on how it spreads and its associated risks.
While Zika primarily spreads through the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, Guendel said the virus can also pass through blood and breast milk, though the latter two transmission methods have not been reported in United States.
The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes), but Guendel noted that only about 20 percent of people show symptoms. Clinical illness is usually mild, so they can often go unnoticed too.
Or the symptoms could be mistaken for another mosquito-borne disease like dengue or chikungunya. Fever can occur with all three, while conjunctivitis is specific to Zika.
Because Zika can cause developmental defects in babies when pregnant women contract the disease, educating visitors, especially those of reproductive age, is important.
According to Guendel, the virus can also be transmitted sexually and can be detected in semen and vaginal fluids even after symptoms end. The CDC recommends that women use condoms for eight weeks after contracting Zika to prevent its transmission, while men should use them for six months.
“Every day there is something new being found out or studied about Zika,” Guendel said, adding that there is no evidence that Zika will affect future pregnancies after having the virus.
Krystal Seger, a member of Health’s Vector Control Team based on St. Croix, discussed the Aedes aegypti mosquito species, which originated in Africa.
Worldwide there are about 3,500 mosquito species with 24 of these being found in the Virgin Islands. Of those 24 species, she said the territory only has to be wary of the Aedes aegypti type, since the others aren’t known to carry disease.
The Aedes aegypti is a threat to people, since it likes biting humans more than other animals and can lay larvae is small amounts of fresh water. For this reason, Health is offering free mosquito breeding inspections and can consult with the public about how best to mitigate mosquito reproduction.
Seger said tourism partners can help get rid of or treat standing water and can encourage visitors to use repellent that contains DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus as an active ingredient.
“Tourists come here for the sun, but when they aren’t laying on the beach, you can also encourage them to wear long pants and long sleeves,” Seger said.
Maggie Rudick, pesticide education and outbreak liaison for the Environmental Protection Agency, said she’s been working with the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources to make sure that the pesticides being used to fight Zika are safe and effective.
“Mosquito prevention is everyone’s job and it comes down to us as individuals to help prevent the spread of the disease,” Rudick told attendees.
Rudick cautioned tourism professionals against relying too much on low-risk status products like the mosquito-repelling wristbands and stickers that are sold in the checkout lines of many of the territory’s grocery stores and checkout lines. The EPA calls these items 25(b) products.
“While they don’t have a high toxicity rating, they don’t undergo safety or efficacy testing, so they may provide a false sense of protection,” Rudick explained. “They won’t harm you but they won’t help you either.”
Planning and Natural Resources has inspectors that are trained to identify mosquito problem areas and are available for site visits, Rudick said. If there are any questions about the risk, safety or efficacy of a pesticide, DPNR can advise. The Pesticide Control Program can be reached at 340-714-2333.