NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - In a secure lab, Dr. Dawn Wesson and her team will soon infect local mosquitoes with the Zika virus to see how good they are at transmitting it. The Tulane researchers want to know if the dangerous virus will spread here like it has in other countries.
"We have very secure facilities here at Tulane where we have worked with viruses like Zika in the past, and we've got all the proper clearances to be able to do that," said Wesson, a Tulane University associate professor of tropical medicine.
Wesson says Zika is one nasty virus, different than other mosquito-borne illnesses because it can be sexually transmitted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently confirmed that Zika can cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads and other severe brain defects.
"I think if you have the resources to avoid being infected with this virus you certainly should do so," said Wesson.
Dr. Granville Morse who is the medical director of MHM Urgent Care says if you're infected, you may or may not show symptoms.
"Outside of actually having the symptoms of Zika virus, it's hard to tell that you actually had it and those aren't very specific to many other viruses. The common symptoms of Zika virus are fever, rash in some people, joint pain and then conjunctivitis, which everyone knows is pink eye or redness of the eyes," said Morse.
According to the CDC, there have been four cases of the Zika virus reported in Louisiana, but none of those patients were infected by mosquitoes in the United States. Wesson says right now, there aren't that many mosquitoes out, but that will change as we move into the warmer summer months, and it's possible we could see it transmitted here.
"We anticipate that the risk is there. We don't know when it will happen or even if it will happen this year. A couple of recent publications coming out suggest that Southern Florida is probably at highest risk in the United States overall for local transmission, but New Orleans is actually a close third or fourth on that map," said Wesson.
It's important to note that Tulane researchers will be feeding local mosquitoes the Zika virus through an artificial membrane system - they won't be using live animals or people for their test. That testing will start in the next couple of weeks and we're told researchers will know by the end of May how good those mosquitoes are at transmitting the virus.
Experts say your best defense against Zika is to wear mosquito repellant, long sleeves and pants, stay in air-conditioned areas and pregnant women shouldn't travel to areas where there is currently an outbreak of the virus.