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Officials say Zika virus will land here

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon met with Jackson County public health officials Monday to discuss fighting the Zika virus at the local level and freeing up funding for it in Congress.

"We have Oregon athletes in the Olympics, and with Southern Oregon in proximity to California ... it's very much on people's minds," Wyden told the group.

While there was no consensus among the health officials and professionals as to when Zika might become prevalent in the area, several said they were confident it would happen.

"We'll certainly see imported cases," said James Lunders, manager and biologist of Jackson County Vector Control District. He said the county is also working to find out whether the area's mosquitoes could transmit the virus.

"It just hasn't happened yet," Lunders said. "Will it? Eventually."

Jackson County does not currently have either of the two identified species of mosquito that have been linked with carrying Zika, Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus, according to Lunders, but it's likely that the county will eventually see the latter. In addition, Jackson County is home to other Aedes species, but it's unknown whether they could be transmitters. 

"That's something we're monitoring," he said. Though he calls the arrival of the virus an "eventuality," he said it would take time before a Zika-carrying mosquito population was established in the area.

"We're not going to wake up and it's everywhere," Lunders said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika is transmitted by blood, primarily through mosquito bites, or during sex. The virus can be passed from pregnant mothers to fetuses during pregnancy, and can cause the birth defect microcephaly, in which children are born with abnormally small heads. 

For most people, symptoms are usually mild and flu-like, and can occur undetected in people who don't realize they have it. The CDC, however, has sent out cautions against traveling to affected South American countries, because of the threat to newborns.

Julie Wurth, communications officer at Medford-based La Clinica health centers, said that about a third of the clinic's patients are Latino and may be more likely to travel to countries where the virus is prevalent. The clinics are screening all patients, she said, asking whether they've traveled outside the country within the last 14 days.

While they believe the Zika virus eventually will show up in people infected by local mosquitoes, Lunders said the variables make it difficult to estimate when that could occur. 

First, someone in the area would need to have the virus and be bitten by a mosquito capable of transmitting the virus. Once infected, the mosquito would pass along the virus by biting another human directly. Infected people, who often show no symptoms of the virus, could also transmit the disease to others through blood or semen.

"We have a really good surveillance mechanism for West Nile (virus), but we don't know how effective that would be for Zika," Lunders said.

Earlier this year, Josephine County reported its first cases of Zika. Though Jackson County has a vector control department in place to monitor and control mosquito populations in case of outbreaks, Lunders said no such mechanisms exist in Josephine County.

"In areas without control work, if an epidemic starts, there's nothing to contain it," Lunders said. "That's a concern. If you have a population 30 miles away with the disease, someone in Jackson County could get it."

Because Jackson County's mosquito control effort is funded with local tax dollars, he said, the department is barred from going to neighboring counties to work in those areas.

Even in an emergency, funding would need to come from an outside source to be able to assist in controlling a mosquito population carrying the virus beyond the county lines. 

"There isn't a pot of money to access," he says. "There is no money available to do that."

Health officials at the meeting did offer up a low-cost solution to help combat the Zika spread. Using existing methods of screening, which were rolled out during the Ebola outbreak, it would be relatively simple to screen residents entering hospitals for potential exposure to Zika.

Several professionals echoed the need for funding more aggressive research and education, plus preventive measures such as contraception.

In February of this year, Wyden, along with fellow Democrat, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, supported a Senate request to increase funding to organizations working to research and fight Zika. Last month, a bill to provide $1.1 billion in Zika funding stalled in Congress over a partisan dispute over other portions of the measure, including provisions that would have hindered access to contraceptives for women.

"What I want to do is collect all this information and then when Congress gets back together, come up with a science-based approach that both political parties can support," Wyden says.

Dr. James Shames, county health officer for the Jackson County Health Department, was among those calling for more funding.

"Provide oversight, make sure the money's being spent wisely," Shames says. "But give us the resources to do our work and give the folks who we turn to the resources to do their work."

Reach reporting intern Hannah Golden at hgolden@mailtribune.com.

Ron Wyden