Beaufort County is wedged between two cities that could soon host the mosquito that is the primary carrier of Zika virus.
Charleston and Savannah are among nine cities that, by July, could have a “high abundance” of aedes aegypti — the yellow fever mosquito — which is the primary “vector” or carrier of the virus, according to one study.
The study, which appeared in the journal PLOS Currents: Outbreaks, “provides a ‘baseline risk’ level for the country ... especially as public health officials gear up for the mosquitoes’ likely arrival,” the Washington Post reported. “It gives a sense of where and when we should start to be worried.”
Savannah is home to over 140,000 people, according to U.S. Census data and is about 25 miles from Bluffton. Charleston has about 130,000 people and is under 100 miles away.
But an expert in Beaufort County says it’s important to remember the study is based off a simulation. There are plans in place if a case of Zika is confirmed.
“You have to keep in mind — and I’m not a modeling specialist — but it’s a model,” Gregg Hunt, director of Beaufort County Mosquito Control, said Wednesday. “It’d be similar to forecasting the weather and tracking hurricanes: Many times they’re right; other times they’re wrong.”
If a case of Zika is confirmed in the county, Hunt’s organization will initiate “intensive” adult-mosquito abatement by ground within a one-mile radius of the case. In the event of multiple cases of the virus in the county, “then aerial applications (of insecticide) will supplement the spray trucks,” according to the organization’s Zika virus response plan.
The yellow fever mosquito is not among the 57 species of mosquito that call Beaufort County home, according to Hunt. The yellow fever mosquito has appeared before in the county, Hunt said, but not since 1992.
The Asian tiger mosquito — aedes albopictus — is capable of carrying Zika, Hunt said, and it has appeared before in the county. But he stressed it’s not the primary carrier of the virus.
“The good news is that we’ve only seen it sporadically during recent years, and it occurs in low numbers,” Hunt said, adding that the first occurrence of the Asian tiger mosquito in the county was in 1992.
A spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said the yellow fever mosquito is found in small numbers and only in the Lowcountry. The Asian tiger mosquito, according to DHEC, is abundant throughout the state.
The World Health Organization declared Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern” in February, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The virus is of particular concern to pregnant women. “Although there is is increasing evidence of the link between Zika and microcephaly” — a birth defect which causes babies to have smaller-than-normal heads — “we do not know if these babies’ microcephaly is a result of their mother’s Zika virus infection during pregnancy,” says the CDC’s website.
According to the organization, there are currently 273 cases of Zika in the United States. All are classified as “travel-associated,” meaning they were contracted abroad. There are no confirmed cases of Zika in South Carolina, according to DHEC.
People can minimize their exposure to mosquitoes by wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, using bug repellant, avoiding peak feeding times at dusk and dawn, and draining standing water from their yards.
“The most important step in controlling mosquitoes is to find all of the places where water can accumulate,” a DHEC spokesperson said.
South Carolinians can help reduce the mosquito population in their own yards since these mosquitoes typically fly only a few hundred feet from their breeding areas.
And for now, they can take comfort in knowing that the county’s No. 1 pest, the salt marsh mosquito, doesn’t carry Zika.