© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wisconsin Officials Bracing For Zika Virus

Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Zika virus has been particularly damaging to babies whose mothers became infected while pregnant.

The Zika virus continues causing worldwide concern. Even in Wisconsin, health officials are on alert. The virus is linked to brain deformities in newborns whose mothers were infected.

A certain type of tropical mosquito is blamed for spreading the virus, although there may be other means of transmission. Wisconsin is stepping up its efforts, in anticipation of the virus’s arrival.

Until now, scientists believed the Zika virus could only be transmitted through mosquito bites, and not person to person. That changed Wednesday, when the Centers for Disease Control confirmed a case in Dallas, in which the virus was transmitted sexually.  

One person who finds the recent news alarming is Diep Johnson. She’s an infectious disease specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Johnson says she’s been fielding about a dozen calls a day for the past couple weeks, both from health agencies and the general public.

“They’re concerned about their own safety if they’re planning to travel, or some of them came back from a vacation to one of these affected areas and would like to have testing or wanted to know more about the disease,” Johnson says.

Johnson says the state has been working with the Centers for Disease Control to import a test for the virus. She expects a test to arrive in the next few weeks. In addition, Johnson says she’ll work with UW-Madison to get funding to watch for the particular mosquito that carries the virus.

“We already have a very strong partnership in tick surveillance and we do have mosquito surveillance for the West Nile virus in some of our counties and that’s a different type of species. So, the structure is there, it’s just a matter of expanding our surveillance,” Johnson says.

Johnson says she’s concerned about the mosquito migrating north; it’s been detected in warm weather states. UW-Madison Epidemiologist Matt Aliota is cautioning people here not to panic.

“Aedes aegypti is a tropical mosquito species so its geographic range is really limited by temperature. It can’t make it much farther north than right now, it is at its geographic limit,” Aliota says.

Yet, Aliota says global climate change could eventually result in the mosquito showing up in Wisconsin.

Paul Biedrzycki of the Milwaukee Health Department says he’s monitoring the situation in southern states. He says his office hasn’t received many calls yet, but expects an increase as we head into March.

“We are coming upon spring break when a lot of people travel to the Caribbean or travel to parts of Mexico for vacation or holiday. So, I fully expect that there may be some exposure. It’s difficult to say how many of those travelers will return to Wisconsin with Zika virus infection,” Biedrzycki says.

Biedrzycki says his advice for people traveling to tropical places is to avoid mosquito bites. It may mean carrying repellant and covering skin - the opposite of what many people tend to do on tropical vacations.

While the damage to babies can be severe and irreversible when their pregnant mothers are infected, most people show mild symptoms of fever and rash.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
Related Content