McALLEN — Spring break could be a critical time for public health officials, as the migration of people from one country to the other could potentially spread the Zika virus.
Public health experts from the United States and Mexico convened Monday at the McAllen Convention Center to exchange information regarding mosquito-borne illnesses and other public health issues of mutual interest along the border.
“The objective is pretty straightforward: to exchange information of mutual interest,” said Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services. “It sounds very simple, but the reality is it’s actually very complicated.”
A slew of doctors, including epidemiologists, veterinarians and entomologists, from both sides of the border took turns discussing potential threats to Northern Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of Texas.
Their attention focused on the four viruses most commonly associated with mosquitoes: Dengue, Chikungunya, West Nile and Zika.
“Our enemies are mosquitoes,” Dr. Daniel Carmona Aguirre said in Spanish.
Carmona Aguirre, the Tamaulipas state director of epidemiology, said there is only one case of Zika in his state — a doctor who traveled to South America, became infected there and returned to Tamaulipas. In Mexico there are a total of 93 cases, eight of them pregnant women. One of the eight women recently gave birth to a healthy baby, he added.
“The cases we are worried about are the ones in Monterrey, Mexico,” he said.
Monterrey has four cases of Zika and none of those patients had travelled to Central or South America, he said. They were first tested under suspicion of having the Chikungunya virus, but it turned out to be Zika.
“Lots of people travel to South Padre Island during Semana Santa,” he said about Mexico’s Easter break, “and we could potentially see new cases in less than 15 days.”
Zika is carried by a species of mosquito called the Aedes Aegypti . While that mosquito is present in Texas, it does not currently carry the Zika virus, Olivarez said. Texas residents are more likely to get West Nile, he added.
Nonetheless, public health experts do expect the Zika virus to make its way to Texas by way of the border regions.
“It will be here in Texas, and it will be here sooner than later,” Olivarez said. “It’s going to cross the border and we’re going to have to deal with it.”
There are 13 confirmed cases in Texas, and one more might be added today, said Dr. Tom J. Sidwa, state public health veterinarian at Texas Department of State Health Services. Only one of those cases was sexually transmitted, but none of the 13 confirmed patients are pregnant women.
State Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, who sits on the House of Representatives’ Public Health Committee, commended the bi-national leaders for their initiative.
“You’re being proactive and not reactive,” Guerra said. “This issue has not hit the Rio Grande Valley as of yet, but you are on the forefront of making sure that if it does come, we will be ready.”