USF will host central Florida’s Zika referral center

A seasonal annoyance, bugs can be a pesky thing. Yet, it remains important to understand the viruses and sickness they may carry.

USF has opened a Zika referral center for all patients in the central Florida area as mosquito season approaches, most commonly the spring and summer months. The center is located in the USF Health South Tampa Center.

Dr. Stephanie Ros, the director of obstetric services for the Zika Referral Center, said it is important to share the information necessary toward knowing how one may become infected with Zika, a virus commonly transmitted by mosquitoes which can cause infection.

According to Ros, Zika can be transmitted in a few different ways, such as a mosquito bite or unprotected sex. “Most of the people who get it comes through transmission by mosquito, as in the mosquito bites the person and it’s transmitted in that way. It can also be transmitted by sexual intercourse or through a pregnant mother from her to her unborn baby.”

In 2017, there were 449 Zika virus disease cases reported in the US, a significant decrease from the 5,168 cases reported in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The largest population of those affected by Zika are fetuses, according to Ros, though adults are subject to the illness as well, such as fever, rash and joint pain.

“If a fetus gets the infection while the pregnant mother passes it to her unborn child, it can be very serious,” Ros said. “That’s who’s the most vulnerable. A fetus who gets it can develop complications where they have long term development problems, disabilities or severe mental delays. Deafness, blindness and even conditions where their heads and brains become abnormally small. In some rare cases, adults can develop paralyzing conditions that start at their feet and it can get to your diaphragm causing you not to breathe. It’s very rare, but can happen.”

The location for the center was chosen as USF due to its ability to reach a large number of people, according to Ros. Although no sign of the Zika virus has shown itself within USF’s campus.

“I think that USF was chosen for this branch from the Department of Health because we can help a lot of the community and its doctors to help recognize the virus,” Ros said. “If any pregnant patients in the community get it, we can help intervene and help take care of their baby. That’s really the main goal, it’s not because we think there’s a danger to our student population. It’s for everybody, we’re here for all of central Florida.”

Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, a chairwoman of the department of pediatrics at USF and one of the Zika referral center’s leaders, acknowledged that although some of the panic has died down in recent years since its peak in 2016, being familiar with the signs of Zika infection remains important.

“I think that when Zika first came out, there was a great concern about the virus,” Emmanuel said. “There was hysteria in Florida because of the cases that occurred in Miami. When that happened, people were very concerned. Now I think it’s fallen off the radar a little bit, there’s not as much concern but it does still exist. We do still need to have some heightened awareness of these infections.”

Symptoms of the virus can seem like common ailments, causing those with the virus to simply assume nothing is wrong with them, Ros said. According to the World Health Organization, it is likely to be a few days before one notices the symptoms taking place after being infected.

“Usually the people who get the virus don’t even know they had it. They have no symptoms, or they might have such things as a mild fever. Even pink eye, a rash, some aches and pains. For most people it doesn't do anything.“

According to Ros, those who should be most concerned about contracting the virus are individuals who have had unprotected sex, especially with people who have recently been to other countries.

“The main thing that people should know as far as Zika is concerned is that the only people who should be worried about contracting it are those who plan on becoming pregnant or could potentially become pregnant within the next six months,” Ros said. “Those are the folks that should be thinking about it more and make an effort to be more aware of it. There’s no proof that you can get it just by living in Tampa, one would have to leave the United States and go to a place that actively has the virus right now to be at risk. A large misconception is that by just living in Florida you’re at risk, and that’s not true.”

Emmanuel said if one is traveling to another country, especially pregnant women, attempts should be made to be aware of its Zika status.

“I do think that pregnant women are at risk for infection during their pregnancy,” Emmanuel said. “They need to be aware of possible exposure such as during travel to other countries. We do need to continue to have a heightened awareness and screening for this devastating virus. It bursted on the scene really fast and it effects you really fast. You need to have good discussion with your doctor about how to be careful and cautious.”