Stephanie Milbhauer is four and a half months pregnant with her third child and is seriously considering “temporarily relocating” to her family home in Ohio as the rainy season approaches and the Zika virus is expected to resurface.
“I need to know if there is a real risk,” said Milbhauer, 28, who attended a community session on Zika led by health experts Tuesday night at West Kendall Baptist Hospital. “I have tried everything and I still seem to get bitten.”
While Milbhauer’s concerns are warranted — pregnant women face the highest risk when it comes to the virus spread by the bite of a Aedes Aegytpi mosquito — experts say their main message is focusing on year-round prevention, educating South Floridians on steps they can take to minimize their risk of contracting the virus.
South Florida remains under watch by health officials, as four separate neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County last year had active transmission of the virus through local mosquitoes. The neighborhoods included Miami’s Wynwood and Little River and most of Miami Beach.
“We can’t let our guard down, because it’s a year-round process,” said Lillian Rivera, who heads the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County. “You really need to protect yourself and it takes a lot of work.”
Among the most important things everyone should remember do immediately: wear repellant when going outside, remove standing water around your property and get tested if you suspect you could be infected. Pregnant woman and men who are partners of pregnant women, or couples who are planning to start a family, should be especially careful.
“All of us as citizens of this community owe it to our colleagues, the women who are potentially pregnant, to not be reservoirs for infection that will make them more likely to be safe,” said Dr. Jack Ziffer, chief medical officer for Baptist Health South Florida. “We need to be very vigilant starting now.”
Pregnant women are most at risk because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed that Zika contracted during pregnancy can cause babies to be born with neurological disorders, including microcephaly, eye disorders and central nervous system problems. The CDC released a report Tuesday indicating that 1 in 10 pregnant women with a confirmed Zika infection had babies born with birth defects.
There have only been two cases in Miami-Dade so far this year, but health officials say they are ramping up efforts now because with rain comes mosquitoes. The rainy season usually begins around May. In 2016, Florida health officials confirmed 1,440 Zika infections, including 292 pregnant women.
Tuesday night’s forum included Rivera; Dr. Aileen Marty, from Florida International University’s Department of Medicine; Dr. Alberto Sirven, West Kendall Baptist Hospital’s chief of women and infants; and Dr. Joseph Scott, West Kendall Baptist Hospital’s emergency department medical director.
Marty said there was still a lot to learn about the disease and that “Zika was here to stay.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal calls for adding about $50 million to the state health department’s budget, which if enacted, would bring the health department budget to $2.9 billion. Scott has called for the department to hire 21 epidemiologists and to invest more on research of infectious diseases. The state budget goes into effect July 1.
After the discussion, Milbhauer, who was given a handful of repellant packets, said she felt a little better and had “a lot to think about.”
“Moving is still an option,” she said.