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Bob Buckhorn says Tampa will get aggressive in trying to combat Zika virus

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Florida is the only state in the nation infected with native Zika, the mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted virus. On Friday, Governor Rick Scott announced that state health officials had identified five cases in Miami Beach, joining Miami’s Wynwood arts neighborhood as the two sites that have now reported locally transmitted cases in the U.S.

Bob Buckhorn doesn’t want Tampa to become next.

Standing in front of an empty pool in an abandoned home in Tampa’s Wellswood area on Monday, the mayor announced a plan to attempt to combat the chances that the virus will spread to the region.

“We’re going to be aggressive about going out and identifying in those areas and those circumstances and those situations where we can affect some change,” Buckhorn said. “These abandoned pools are one of these circumstances.”

The Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. They tend to breed in standing water, which is why the city will begin utilizing all 45 of their code inspectors and 38 additional neighborhood enhancement personnel to locate areas around the city where standing water has accumulated.

Those inspectors will be equipped with 3,600 dunks to drop in those pools of water. These dunks contain BTI (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis), a bacterium that naturally kills mosquito larvae before they can grow up to become flying, biting, disease-spreading adults. BTI is deadly to mosquito larvae, but it is harmless to people, plants, pets, fish, wildlife and beneficial insects.

Code Enforcement will distribute those dunks to residents, and also use them throw them into pools, retention ponds and other areas where they know standing water exists. They’re also available at Home Depot and Lowe’s for the general public.

“We need some help from the public, because they see houses like this, situations that we may not see,” said Sal Ruggiero, manager of Neighborhood Enhancement. He gave out a phone number (813-274-5545) for residents to call to give information on abandoned homes with swimming pools or other areas where water could build tip. Officials say that five years ago , there were more than 4,000 such abandoned homes.

Mosquito control is the domain of Hillsborough County, not the city, but Buckhorn said he wanted to “take things into our own hands” and act now.

Despite the calls from the governor on down to most members of the Florida congressional delegation, House Speaker Paul Ryan has insisted that there is no reason to call Congress back before their summer recess to address the issue of funding. President Obama has been holding out for a $1.9 billion package. The Senate failed to come to terms on a plan that would have provided $1.1 billion in funding. Health officials are resorting to using funds meant for other diseases in lieu of a funding package.

“I can’t tell you when Zika dollars are going to become available,” said Buckhorn. “All I can control is what I can control. And I can control this. So we’re not waiting for anybody else.”

U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies. The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed 1,835 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers.

At his news conference on Friday, Governor Scott played down any fear that visiting Miami Beach might be dangerous, though some would argue it is for a pregnant woman at the moment. Buckhorn said that was the reason of being proactive, but he insisted that he wouldn’t wait for the state or federal government to intervene.

“The response to Zika is both an individual personal decisions and activities, and then a coordinated effort from the public,” said Doug Holt, director of the Division of Infectious Disease and International Medicine at the USF Morsani College of Law.

In addition to using dunks, the mayor also advised citizens to use bug repellant spray on their exposed parts of their body before they venture out into the outdoors, something that he says he does with his two daughters every morning.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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