Dr. Sandeep Gandhi gave a community presentation update on the Zika virus at Peconic Bay Center Saturday morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Zika virus, which has swept through South and Central Americas and has been reported in every state in the continental U.S. except Wyoming, is not likely to reach epidemic proportions in North America, according to Riverhead infectious disease specialist Dr. Sandeep Gandhi. Gandhi gave a talk on the virus at Peconic Bay Medical Center Saturday morning.

The availability of air conditioning and window screens will help prevent widespread local infection if mosquitoes in this region become infected with the virus. Heightened public awareness will also help keep it in check.

But Zika virus can be sexually transmitted by someone infected while traveling to an area where the virus is being spread by mosquitoes — and it can also be locally transmitted by a mosquito that is active here, the Asian Tiger mosquito, Gandhi said.

The Aedes species mosquito — A. aegypti and A. albopictus, pictured — is known to transmit Zika virus.Photo: James Gathany/CDC
The Aedes species mosquito — A. aegypti and A. albopictus, pictured — is known to transmit Zika virus.Photo: James Gathany/CDC

The Asian Tiger, or Aedes albopictus mosquito, is “a cousin of” the Aedus aegypti, which is transmitting the disease in Florida and South and Central Americas, Gandhi said. The aedus egypti is not found north of the southern tip of New Jersey, he said. The Asian Tiger mosquito is found on Long Island and throughout the metro New York region. If an Asian Tiger mosquito bites someone with a travel-associated infection, the

mosquito can become infected and spread the virus when it bites another person, he said. (Zika is not transmitted by the common house mosquito, the Culex pippians, which is prevalent on Long Island.)

Asian Tiger mosquitoes, which are aggressive daytime biters, are now active in Suffolk County, the Suffolk County Health Department announced this month.

To date, no mosquito samples in this region have tested positive for Zika virus and no local transmissions of Zika have been confirmed in New York — or any state other than Florida.

There have been more than 600 travel-associated cases of Zika reported in New York, more than any other state.

Dr. Sandeep Ghandi, an infectious disease specialist at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, gave a community presentation on the Zika virus Saturday morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Dr. Sandeep Ghandi, an infectious disease specialist at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, gave a community presentation on the Zika virus Saturday morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Gandhi said so far two people have been tested for Zika virus at Peconic Bay Medical Center. One test was negative and the second result is still pending.

People infected with Zika can transmit the virus whether or not they are themselves symptomatic — there is a two-week incubation period during which transmission can also occur; also only 20 percent of those infected exhibit symptoms, the doctor said.  Infected men can transmit Zika in their sperm for up to 10 months after they are infected. Infected women can transmit Zika to others, including a fetus, for more than two weeks following infection.

The virus can cause birth defects, including severe microcephaly, which results in developmental delay, intellectual disability, hearing loss, vision problems and other conditions. Zika infection in adults is associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. Long-lasting effects of the virus on young children infected by a bite are still unknown, Gandhi said.

Gandhi said residents should protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellents and screens, and by emptying standing water near their homes.

“You can spray your clothes with repellent,” Gandhi said. “Its effects will last up to seven or eight washes.”

Deet, the ingredient in most commercial repellents, is safe for pregnant women and babies older than two months, he said.

Research is currently being conducted on a vaccine against the virus, with the first human trials of the drug expected in 2018, according to Gandhi.

But the virus is “constantly evolving,” the doctor said.

Zika virus is named for the place where it was first discovered in the 1940s, the Zika Forest in Uganda. Africa. Scientists believe Zika’s rapid spread, like the spread of other mosquito-borne diseases including malaraia, chikungunya and dengue fever, is related to environmental factors, especially deforestation. Deforestation has created conditions favorable to the proliferation of mosquitoes in areas adjoining human habitats.

Gandhi gave his presentation and took questions from healthcare providers, hospital staff and community members Saturday morning at the Riverhead hospital.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.