With the summer season coming to a close, we are reminding the public that New Jersey has been aggressively responding to the potential threat of the Zika virus since early this year. This remains a priority as we learn more about Zika and continue to collaborate with our partners in a unified effort to protect the public from mosquito-borne illnesses.
The New Jersey Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection have worked closely with public health and county mosquito control partners to educate the public, monitor and reduce the mosquito population, and prepare for this virus.
New Jersey has decades of experience tracking and preventing mosquito-borne illnesses that pose a threat to human health and domestic animals, namely West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis. These more common threats will remain with us until the first frosts of fall.
It is important to note that so far, New Jersey has seen no local transmission of Zika, although nearly 130 individuals who traveled to countries where Zika is active have tested positive for the virus.
The risk of local transmission here remains low, but it’s important to know what the state has done in response to this threat. Together, we have invested more than $5 million to carry out a variety of activities. These include testing 1,300 individuals for the virus, creating the #ZapZika public awareness campaign, preparing Zika prevention kits for pregnant women, establishing a 24/7 Zika hotline (1-800-962-1253), and providing additional resources to county mosquito control commissions to increase mosquito surveillance and reduce the mosquito population. DOH has also been monitoring babies born to mothers who may have been exposed during pregnancy to connect them to services. The 23 county LINCS agencies will soon have Zika prevention kits for FQHCS and WIC offices in their communities.
Thousands of health care providers, local public health, EMS and emergency preparedness professionals, and staff in WIC clinics and hospitals receive regular updates via trainings, webinars and conference calls led by the Department of Health. Both departments partnered with the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials in June to host a Zika workshop with local health and mosquito control agencies to share lessons learned and discuss how to further educate communities.
More than 30 public events have taken place to educate pregnant women and potential travelers to the nearly 60 countries currently impacted by Zika.
DEP has awarded an additional $500,000 in grants to county mosquito control for reimbursements incurred for mosquito control, monitoring and identification efforts, as well as supplies and additional staffing.
DEP has also provided county mosquito control commissions with specialized traps for collecting Aedes mosquitoes and mosquito dunks (ecologically-safe tablets placed in standing water to destroy mosquito larvae before they hatch into adult mosquitoes). To date, more than 7,000 mosquitoes have tested negative for the virus. If a mosquito carrying the disease is identified, the State Mosquito Control Commission, county mosquito control and DEP are ready to deploy a comprehensive, rapid response to immediately attack the threat.
In addition, DEP has raised and stocked more than 460,000 fish that eat mosquito larvae and will continue stocking suitable larval habitats through the fall. The Department also established a regional distribution center in Camden County to increase capacity so southern counties can have quick and convenient access to these mosquito-eating predators.
The Department of Health’s #ZapZika campaign features radio and bus ads, and social media. Education materials are available on both Departments’ websites. A DEP podcast features leaders from both agencies talking about Zika response efforts.
But for everything we do at the state level, it remains critically important that residents take steps to reduce mosquito breeding around their properties by removing any sources of standing water. Mosquitoes can breed in standing water in a container as small as a bottle cap. Remember: standing water plus seven days equals mosquitoes.
Clean out gutters, change water in bird baths, make sure trash cans are tightly sealed and dispose of old flower pots. If venturing outdoors, wear protective clothing and use EPA-registered mosquito repellents.
Working together, we can ensure that we are not only protected from Zika, but from other mosquito-borne diseases that we have been combating for years.
Cathleen Bennett is commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health. Bob Martin is commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.