Since January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working around the clock inside their labs in Puerto Rico to fight the Zika virus.
The staff to run tests on blood and bodily fluids increases each day as the number of confirmed cases inches closer to the 1,000 mark. The CDC showed ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska firsthand why money and resources are so desperately needed.
“We are testing each sample for antibodies of Zika manually,” said Dr. Jorge Muñoz, the director of the diagnostic lab in the CDC Dengue branch said. “We can do more than a 100 a day and 500 a week."
On our visit there was a flurry of activity. More than 10 people crammed into a lab space shuffling past each other to run the tests. Two of the workers were new and going through training.
“With more funding we would be able to conduct some more research to provide better tests that are faster and more specific for Zika,” Muñoz said. “The tests we have implemented are a little more traditional and rudimentary.”
In another section of the CDC Dengue branch Roberto Barrera, the chief of entomology and ecology activity, works to fight Zika on another front.
“The real problem with this mosquito, it is a domestic mosquito, it is produced in the homes of people and public health personnel cannot easily get access to the homes,” Barrera said.
Unlike mosquitoes found in swamps and wooded areas Zika hides in people’s homes. So when pest control sprays the streets they are safe inside waiting to bite their host and continue spreading the virus.
“They are sneaky biters,” Barrera said.
There are no cases of mosquito-borne Zika in the United States but Barrera says with each new case in Puerto Rico the risk increases.
“There is a risk of the virus being taken up by local mosquito populations and start local outbreaks, in particular, in the southern states,” Barrera said.
Female mosquitoes will lay eggs that can survive in dry conditions for up to a year. When the rains hit, Barrera says it causes an explosion in the mosquito population. And what Barrera said scares him the most is that the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika is considered a “low density” mosquito.
“This tells you you don't need very many mosquitoes to have a local outbreak,” Barrera said.
The research conducted at the lab will have a direct impact on the best way for local governments to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika. As for moms-to-be in Puerto Rico, all are getting testing for Zika or Zika antibodies regardless of whether or not they have symptoms from the virus.