Tropical diseases aren’t just found in the tropics anymore — they could even find their way to New Jersey.
Worldwide alarm over the West African Ebola virus outbreak has highlighted the fact that such infectious diseases are spreading due to increased travel.
And that globalization of viruses has led New Jersey health officials to take precautions against tropical diseases, including testing for a pair of mosquito-borne viruses.
They’re also alerting healthcare providers to the symptoms of Ebola, which led to one state resident being isolated for part of last week until it was determined that the person wasn’t exposed to Ebola.
The risk posed by Ebola to New Jerseyans is low, but mosquito-borne viruses are a more immediate threat.
The New Jersey Department of Health has started testing mosquitos for the chikungunya dengue viruses. Chikungunya can cause a high fever and rash for several days, as well as joint pains that can last for years. Dengue can have similar symptoms, but in rare cases it can be life-threatening.
So far, there have been 25 cases of New Jerseyans testing positive for chikungunya and 13 cases of dengue this year, but all 25 people had travelled to the Caribbean. While the area where chikungunya was endemic – or regularly found – was previously limited to that region, health officials in Florida identified mosquitos carrying the virus this year.
“We are trying to lean forward, so that we are able to monitor not just the human population when people are sick, but more importantly the vector population — the mosquito population — so that we can be ready to do the right surveillance to know whether this is something that is now endemic in our mosquito population,” state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd said. “It used to be that West Nile was new, so now we’re doing these tests for these other diseases.
“I think what you’ve also seen in at least the last two years is a much more proactive effort to be outfront,” O’Dowd said of the state’s efforts.
The year’s first West Nile case was identified last week: a 49-year-old Gloucester County resident who is recovering at home. The state expects more cases through the rest of the summer. The disease was blamed for two deaths in the state last year and six deaths in 2012.
O’Dowd said this forecast “is why it’s so important that individuals take all the precautionary steps to limit time outside during dusk, when mosquitos are most active; wear mosquito repellent; wear long sleeves and pants; and really try to stay aware of their environment to prevent illness.”
Mosquitos breed in standing water, so residents should limit standing water in and around their houses, such as clearing out clogged gutters. People should also maintain screen doors and windows; use insect netting on infant carriers and strollers; remove outdoor containers with standing water, such as discarded tires; turn over wading pools and wheelbarrows when they’re not in use; and clean and chlorinate swimming pools.
The state launched a public awareness campaign, Protect Yourself Against West Nile Virus, which includes messages on radio and public transit, as well as a video featuring O’Dowd. She said her frequent public service announcements about the threat of West Nile have earned her a new nickname.
“I’m the bug commissioner when it comes to spring and summer, but I think it’s really important that to people, it’s not just an itchy bug bite – that you have, potentially, transmission of disease,” she said. “And so making sure that people understand those risks ensures that they’re going to take it a little more seriously when you consider prevention.”
Trenton City Health Officer James Brownlee said the state’s message appears to be having an impact, with local officials receiving fewer calls from residents than in previous years.
O’Dowd added: “It only takes a little bit of standing water to really cause a huge mosquito problem for your entire neighborhood. And so every person can take action around their home in terms of mosquito reduction and, therefore, prevention.”
Health officials had identified West Nile virus-bearing mosquitos in 16 counties through Friday: Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, Union and Warren.
In addition to testing for the mosquito-borne viruses, state officials have also taken precautions against the Ebola virus due to the outbreak in West Africa. O’Dowd noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that Ebola presents a low risk for the United States.
“However, given the amount of travel and the diversity of the state of New Jersey, and the long incubation period of Ebola, it is possible that someone could contract the illness overseas and become sick here in New Jersey, and so that’s why we need to make sure that all of our providers are educated and aware,” of disease symptoms, O’Dowd said.
She emphasized that the state has public health tools available to prevent the spread of Ebola should a resident contract it. “The disease is not easily spread, so taking precautions in terms of infection control can easily manage the situation,” O’Dowd said.
One New Jersey resident who recently visited West Africa spent part of last week isolated at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, after displaying flu-like symptoms. But it was later determined that the person hadn’t been exposed to Ebola and was released.
“I think it’s an example of the healthcare system working right, (with) quick identification of a potential risk, quick notification to public health, immediate use of infection control, and everything was managed appropriately in order to minimize risk out of an abundance of caution, but it was an example of how to do it right,” she O’Dowd said.