Military Freezing Mosquitoes to Guard Against Zika Virus

In this May 17, 2016, photo, Matthew Aliota, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works with a strain of Aedes aegypti mosquito in a research lab. (Jeff Miller/UW-Madison via AP)
In this May 17, 2016, photo, Matthew Aliota, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works with a strain of Aedes aegypti mosquito in a research lab. (Jeff Miller/UW-Madison via AP)

Mosquitoes are being trapped and frozen at Fort Benning and other posts as part of the military's effort to combat the Zika virus that has infected at least 11 service members among more than 1,000 Americans.

Army Pvt. 1st Class Mary Pendris at Benning in Georgia near the Alabama line is among those troops on mosquito trapping duty to detect the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes whose bites can spread the virus which can cause birth defects, including microcephaly, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Once the mosquitoes are trapped at Benning, they are frozen and shipped to the Environmental Health Department of Preventative Medicine on the Georgia post, and then sent to the Army's Public Health Command-Atlantic at Fort Meade in Maryland for testing.

"We haven't found any, at least not yet," of the Aedes aeqypti mosquitoes at Benning, although they are known to be present in the southeast, said Maj. Scott Robinson, chief of preventive medicine at Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital.

Dr. Robinson said that Benning and other Army posts have also been screening troops who have recently returned from South America and the Caribbean, where the Zika virus has hit hardest.

He said that no cases of Zika have turned up yet among Benning troops but two cases of related infections also spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito – dengue fever and Chikungunya virus – have been found.

Chikingunya can lead to fever lasting two to seven days and possible long-term joint pain. The symptoms of dengue are high fever, severe headache, severe pain behind the eyes, joint pain, muscle and bone pain, rash, and mild bleeding from the nose and gums, according to the CDC.

Robinson said his only recourse if Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were found at Benning would be to summon post pest control to spray the area where they were trapped and restate already standing Army guidelines on prevention, including using approved repellents, wearing long-sleeved shirts and staying when possible in air conditioned areas.

To date, at least 11 U.S. troops, four dependents of service members and two military retirees have been infected with the Zika virus since January, according to a Pentagon analysis last month first reported by USA Today. The troops infected were four soldiers, three Airmen, a Marine and three members of the Coast Guard.

Among the 17 service members, dependents and retirees were four women, but none was pregnant, said Dr. Jose Sanchez, deputy chief of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. Fifteen of the 17 recently traveled to the Caribbean or South America, which is the area of responsibility for U.S. Southern Command.

In a roundtable session with Pentagon reporters last month, Adm. Kurt Tidd, the SouthCom commander, said his main effort against Zika in the region was to support research on a vaccine. As for U.S. service members and their families in SouthCom, "we pretty much rely on self-reporting," he said.

In May, the Defense Department announced that it was providing an additional $1.76 million in extra funding to military laboratories to expand Zika virus surveillance worldwide and assess the impact of the virus on deployed service members.

The additional funding will involve 10 projects in 18 countries and territories by four lab partners based in the United States and five located overseas. These include the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland and the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Kenya.

The CDC now estimates that more than 1,000 Americans nationwide have been infected by the Zika virus. None of the cases was believed to have been caused by mosquito bites within the U.S. but the virus was spreading in the southeast.

In Florida last week, state health officials confirmed the largest number of new Zika infections in a single day, with 10 reported last Friday to raise the statewide total to 243 cases this year, including 43 pregnant women.

The new cases were announced in the same week that Florida officials reported the first baby born with a Zika-related birth defect. The baby is at least the fifth child born in the United States with microcephaly, which causes abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development.

Health officials in Maryland also reported last week that the number of Zika virus cases in the state had risen to 31. All of the Maryland cases were travel-related and no one has contracted Zika from being bitten by a mosquito in the state, the officials said.

There is no vaccine for Zika virus, and overall funding for vaccine research and prevention is currently stalled in Congress in election-year political gridlock.

President Obama has proposed $1.9 billion in Zika funding. The Republican-controlled House came back with a $1.1 billion proposal that Democrats said they would block because of riders including cuts in Affordable Health Care Act funding, cuts to Planned Parenthood and Ebola funding, and an amendment involving the display of Confederate flags at Veterans Affairs cemeteries.

Following White House meetings last Friday week with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the CDC, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Obama stressed the urgency to combat Zika in calling on Congress to break the gridlock.

"As all of you know, there has been an enormous spread of Zika throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. We have not yet seen cases that were transmitted on the continental United States, but we do know that the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus exist on the continental United States," Obama said.

"So we have been issuing guidelines in terms of folks who are of child-bearing age, who are thinking about starting a family. We know that men can transmit Zika through their semen if they are infected," Obama said. The risks could be significantly reduced "if Congress does the right thing and allocates the dollars that are needed right now to get the job done" before Congress adjourns on July 15 for a recess that will last past Labor Day. Obama said.

Fauci said he was "reasonably confident" that a vaccine for Zika could be found based on the results of Phase I of the testing, but funding was needed to provide for Phase II. "We're not going to be able to bring this to the goal line," without the funding, Fauci said Sunday on C-Span's "Newsmakers" program.

"We're not going to be able to do the proper implementation" without additional funding, Fauci said. "We absolutely don't have enough money to bring the trials to fruition."

Among the more than 1,000 cases in the U.S., there were 13 cases of sexually transmitted Zika infections, Fauci said, noting that there has never before been "a mosquito-borne virus that causes birth defects."

Fauci declined comment on the politics blocking the funding. He said the riders and amendments to the funding bill were not his concern. "Of course, I wouldn't refuse the money. I need the money," he said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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