By Warren Bolton
Be prepared. Educate. Collaborate. Get the community involved. Those were among the key messages that set the tone of the South Carolina Zika Forum on April 19 — which drew more than 200 participants from across the state.
The gathering of mostly city, county and state decision makers and mosquito control personnel marked the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s latest effort to ensure South Carolina is prepared should Zika make an appearance in our state. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of Zika in South Carolina, but there is a possibility that there one day will be.
The event brought stakeholders together to discuss their respective roles and responsibilities in preventing, detecting and responding to Zika, to share helpful information about maintaining or starting a local mosquito program and to explore collaborative opportunities.
Positioning communities to respond
The forum began with remarks from Swati Patel, Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief of staff, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Heigel and S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Duane Parrish.
Patel said she has seen her share of public emergencies while working in the governor’s office over the past 10 years, including forest fires, ice storms, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the 2015 floods. Now Zika. “Each of the emergencies and their impacts were very different,” she said. “The common theme I learned from all of these experiences is that there is never too much preparation and never too much responsiveness.”
Director Heigel said the convergence of what is expected to be a heavy mosquito season and concern over Zika prompted the forum to discuss prevention, detection and response to the virus. “We’re here to figure out how we can best position all of our communities across the state to respond,” she said.
It’s important to develop a common understanding of the science and medical background of Zika, how it is transmitted and how to respond in terms of mosquito control, the director said.
Sharing knowledge for prevention
The forum included presentations from State Epidemiologist Linda Bell, State Public Health Entomologist Chris Evans and representatives from local mosquito programs in Beaufort County and the city of Hartsville.
Dr. Bell discussed the history of the Zika virus and its occurrence in humans, focusing on transmission, treatment and complications, among other things. Dr. Evans focused on the two types of mosquitoes that can potentially carry the virus, surveillance, eliminating breeding sites and mosquito control. He also discussed the process DHEC will use to decide when to notify local mosquito control programs of a positive Zika case.
The presentations on the two different size mosquito programs illustrated the range that can be found in our state. Beaufort County has a robust program that is active in outreach and reducing mosquito breading grounds but also relies heavily on spraying for adult mosquitoes. The county has developed a Zika response plan that focuses on surveillance, community outreach, abatement strategies and post-outbreak assessment. Hartsville, in its third year of building a program, operates on a smaller scale but also educates the public, uses chemical agents to kill mosquito larvae and encourages citizens to help in eliminating breeding sites. Spraying is a last resort.
The presentations were followed by a panel Q&A that explored various issues surrounding controlling Zika and mosquitoes.
Collaboration key to preparation
At the conclusion of the forum, Director Heigel said it will take a coordinated effort from all involved — federal, state and local officials as well as citizens — to properly respond to Zika. “We have to coordinate. We have to know what resources are available to us and understand how we need to be working together,” she said.
She encouraged attendees to begin preparing: Those who don’t have mosquito programs should start them. If they don’t have sufficient resources, they should develop memorandums of understanding or mutual aid agreements with neighbors who have programs. “Today is about starting those conversations so that we can collaboratively, as a state, be prepared,” she said, adding DHEC will be available to help answer questions along the way.
Many thanks to those partners who joined DHEC in sponsoring the event: Clemson Department of Pesticide Regulation, Municipal Association of SC, SC Association of Counties, SC Department of Commerce, SC Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, SC Disaster Recovery Coordination Office, SC Emergency Management Division, SC Mosquito Control Association and University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public health.
Those attending the forum received a toolkit that included information on how to start a mosquito control program, the various roles partners play, sample public outreach materials and more. Handouts and education materials from the event are available at scdhec.gov/zika.