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Zika Action Day focuses on mosquito prevention

At right, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and

At right, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker look on Friday, May 13, 2016, in Smithtown as Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James L. Tomarken points to a ripped window screen where a mosquito could potentially enter a household. Credit: Barry Sloan

As concerns about Zika virus grow, Suffolk County officials are encouraging residents to proactively fight mosquito exposure with a Zika Action Day and awareness campaign in tandem with state authorities.

State and county health officials and County Executive Steve Bellone announced their efforts at a news conference Friday in the backyard of a Smithtown home.

Bellone, Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken and state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker walked around the yard pointing out common sources of mosquitoes.

“This is the beginning of the mosquito season and we want people to be aware of what the issues are regarding the Zika virus and other diseases,” Tomarken said. “We want people to know what they can do in their homes and in their communities to help reduce the risk of exposure to mosquitoes.”

It only takes a small amount of standing water — enough to fill the cap of a plastic water bottle, for example — to provide a fertile home for mosquito growth, he said. And while all 128 cases of Zika reported in New York were in travelers that had recently come from Zika regions, Tomarken said officials want to be cautious.

“It comes down to eliminating the source of Zika, which is clearly mosquitoes, and taking the protective measures that are necessary so that you don’t get bitten,” Zucker said.

The Zika virus, which causes microcephaly, a birth defect marked by unusually small head and brain size, is likely to make its way to the United States, White House officials said last month. And cities as far north as New York and San Francisco could experience cases of the infection by this summer.

So far, the virus is believed to be transmitted through the Aedes aegypti mosquito. While Tomarken said that type has not been found in New York, a cousin, the Aedes albopictus, has in Suffolk County for several years. It remains unclear whether this relative will transmit the virus, though no cases have been reported yet.

Zika Action Day, scheduled for Saturday, is designed to help county residents learn to avoid exposure to all mosquitoes, Bellone said. More than 130,000 fliers with mosquito information have already been distributed, he said, and Zucker added that even more information will be coming in the form of a public service announcement and advertising campaign.

Tomarken and Zucker said the most important aspect of prevention is regular action, especially after it rains.

The county offered these tips to stop mosquito growth:

n Dump water from outdoor items that may collect it such as kiddie pools.

n Dispose of used tires.

n Unclog gutters.

n Fill ground depressions where water collects.

n Drain pool covers.

n Maintain water features like pools and fountains.

n Secure and repair doors and window screens.

“If you’re not using it turn it over,” Tomarken said. “If you have any water that isn’t running and doesn’t have fish in it, you want to get rid of it.”

For Zika Action Day, residents are encouraged to post photos on social media of their families taking mosquito reduction measures with #ZikaActionNY.

The county’s push is part of its Zika action plan, officials said. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo required all counties to submit one in March.

On the state level, Zucker said the department of health is aggressively working to prepare for local mosquito transmission, with a particular focus on downstate counties like Suffolk, where the Aedes albopictus is common.

Additional staff has been hired to process possible Zika case samples and create a rapid response team. Officials also purchased 100,000 larvicide tablets, which kill growing mosquitoes in bodies of water that are difficult to empty, such as ponds or sagging pool covers, and are distributing them to those who call the state Zika information hotline.

Both county and state officials will be collecting mosquitoes of all types for regular testing to monitor the situation as the summer progresses.

“Yes we are in the middle of a global epidemic of this issue; yes there is a lot to learn about Zika,” Zucker said. “But here in New York we are really aggressively fighting back and working hard to protect our residents.”