Interview: Why Did Zika Pop Up In Washoe?

Sep 17, 2016

We recently reported on the first case of a zika pregnancy in Washoe County. To learn more about what this means for the community, our News Director Michelle Billman spoke to Dr. Jim Wilson, who heads the Nevada Center for Infectious Disease Forecasting at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Credit Frank de Kleine / CC BY-SA 2.0

KUNR: We learned recently that there’s a pregnancy Zika case in Washoe County. One has been confirmed. Are you surprised by that finding?

Jim Wilson: Not at all. I understand that the mother had traveled to areas where Zika is transmitting actively. My recommendation to anyone who is thinking about traveling south of the border is to think twice about doing it, especially if you’re one-half of a fertile couple, so this is both men and women who are capable of having children, because the risk is there.

KUNR: Of all the places in the U.S., why did this happen specifically in Northern Nevada?

JM: Well, any community in America that has a significant population of first and second-generation Hispanic families, so families that retain connections to their countries of origin [is at risk]. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Mexico or Costa Rica or Puerto Rico or Brazil. America’s a melting pot, right? And we still have second-generation folks who have come to this country, but they also have ties to the country they came from. And, hey, look, you can’t severe those ties. These are close friends and family and loved ones that are left behind in these countries. So that’s a tremendous pull for them to travel down there and visit family, friends, and relatives. Especially if you’re dealing with a young couple who might be pregnant because they want to celebrate the fact that they’re pregnant and expanding their family. I mean, this is natural human behavior.

KUNR: But isn’t there a lot of outreach right now to limit travel to areas that have been affected?

JM: When it comes to local public health, we know there are challenges, so if any of these families who are seeking to travel outside of the U.S., and some of these folks are just here on a green card or are migrant workers or what have you, that these communities are often isolated. They are a real challenge for public health to get to. It’s very expensive to get to these folks and have an effective communication campaign. A lot of times these folks are kind of outside the mainstream of communication in the community because they speak Spanish as a primary language.

These are real, honest to God challenges for public health. In some cities, they have to deal with other communities like Vietnamese-speaking communities or Cambodian-speaking communities, where they don’t have enough staff to cover all the languages they need to cover for all the outreach. And it’s not enough to just publish something in that language, you have to have human-to-human contact with these communities and a trust proxy, and they just don’t have the bandwidth to do that. It’s not really to say that’s an excuse; it’s just a reality: We don’t have enough resources to reach those communities that, in this case, are the most vulnerable.

KUNR: We’ve talked a lot about outreach. Are there other concerns you have for the residents of Washoe County? I think it can be scary to hear there’s been a Zika pregnancy here.

JM: Let’s bring it back home to Washoe County. It is tragic that this family has to deal with this issue. As a daddy to three little girls, I mean, I don’t know how I would deal with it personally. It’s terrible. But if you’re worried about that then becoming an outbreak or an epidemic where it’s going to be picked up by mosquitoes here locally and transmitted, you might as well worry about an asteroid hitting the county because the probability is extremely remote.