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Yuma County Prepares for Zika Virus Threat

Yuma county officials are worried about the Zika virus.   They have reason to be—Yuma has many agricultural workers who come from parts of Mexico and Central America, where the virus is present.  Maya Springhawk Robnett of the Arizona Science Desk reports.

Richard Cuming is a Yuma County Vector Control specialist and his job is to reduce breeding sites for mosquitoes.  On a 100-degree June afternoon, he hangs a mosquito trap in a cluttered yard in downtown Yuma.  “We’ll go ahead and hang this in a front porch area; it’s gonna attract the mosquito, thinking they’re gonna get a bloodmeal,” Cuming says.

This is just one of many sites he will check in neighborhoods and recreation areas with bodies of water.  One thing he hopes to learn is if the mosquito that can carry the Zika virus is increasing in numbers.  “Before 2012 we didn’t even know we had it here," he points out, "It’s a tropical mosquito so you wouldn’t think you’d find it out in the desert.  Then we had a couple wet summers and then we started finding it here.”

Cuming later returned to his office, where examines the mosquitoes he’s caught. He lays out his specimens on white paper under a microscope.  He spots what he’s looking for: the Aedes Aegypti.  Cuming describes it as having white scales in a striped pattern "and it really pops out when you look through the microscope.  You can’t mistake it for anything else.”

But Cuming won’t test the mosquito for the virus.  In fact, the Aedes Aegypti in Yuma County have never been tested for Zika; the test is not yet widely available and it’s expensive.  Cuming says he won’t suspect the mosquitoes of being infected until someone here is diagnosed with the virus.

Besides, there’s not much he could do if the test DID come back positive.

Michelle Smith is the coordinator for the Yuma County Emergency preparedness program. Smith says Aedes Aegypti is one tricky mosquito—especially hard to get rid of because it lives indoors as well as outdoors,And you can’t go into somebody’s house with a fogger and blow them out with mosquito insecticide.”

Smith says the most important thing the county can do right now is educate the public. “It’s going to take everybody in the community being really diligent about looking around their homes making sure they don’t have plants and toys things like that that tend to collect water out in the yard,” she says.

One place on alert is San Luis—a small border town, 25 miles southwest of Yuma.

San Luis has only one walk-in medical clinic, a branch of Regional Center for Border Health, treating many migratory workers who cross through the town in winter to agricultural fields all across the county.  Dr. Charlotte Richards is an OBGYN at the clinic.  “I sort of jokingly call it the Amsterdam of the United States," she says of the San Luis border, "because people are in and out, but they eventually come back.”

I sort of jokingly call it the Amsterdam of the United States because people are in and out, but they eventually come back...

Even though there are no reported cases of Zika here yet, Dr. Richards says its arrival is inevitable.  The problem is, it’s difficult to diagnose since only one in 5 individuals with the virus presents symptoms.  Dr. Richards is especially concerned about her pregnant patients because  Zika is believed to cause microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s skull and brain are underdeveloped.

Alondra Peralta is 31 weeks pregnant.  She works at the clinic's front desk but she's here today for a check-up.  Peralta says she isn’t too worried about Zika now that she takes all the necessary precautions.  “Well, at first I was scared, but I’ve followed the directions of not being outside during the weather when it's humid or wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts.”

There’s also a high teen pregnancy rate in Yuma County.  The clinic recently lost a federal grant that gave free contraception for girls as young as 14.  And this worries Dr. Richards.  “We’re trying very hard to keep people from getting pregnant here.  Once we lost that grant, we got more girls in here than we had before.”

There is a lot of concern over available resources to fight Zika.  Richard Cuming, who traps mosquitoes with the county vector program, says his budget has seen cuts for the past five years.  So County officials will rely, for now, on education.   They plan to post signs at the San Luis Port of Entry and hand out pamphlets, warning, among other things, that Zika is transferrable through bodily fluids.  This winter, Yuma County’s agricultural season, tens of thousands of migrant workers will cross each day to work in American fields.