WCU’s Byrd works with health officials on Zika virus, says he would attend Rio Olympics

Brian Byrd, WCU associate professor of environmental health (left), and Charlie Sither, a WCU graduate student in biology, conduct research to determine the usefulness of a new mosquito trap designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brian Byrd, WCU associate professor of environmental health (left), and Charlie Sither, a WCU graduate student in biology, conduct research to determine the usefulness of a new mosquito trap designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some of Team USA’s most prominent athletes have chosen not to compete at the summer Olympics because of concern over the mosquito-borne Zika virus, but a Western Carolina University faculty member says that, although there are risks, he would go to Rio de Janeiro if he had the chance.

“The short answer is yes,” said Brian Byrd, an associate professor of environmental health who has been advising health officials from local agencies and all the way up to North Carolina’s top public health experts about the virus. “Infection with Zika is preventable, and travel, especially abroad, is always associated with risks,” he said. “Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 killer of healthy U.S. citizens abroad. The key to safe travel abroad is to plan and prepare. There are enhanced precautionsthat are recommended for the Olympics, and travelers should be aware of those precautions.”

Byrd, who supervises WCU’s Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility, said the Zika virus would barely factor in as a concern if he had a chance to compete as an Olympian. “I would probably make a decision to participate based on factors that have little or nothing to do with Zika,” he said. “An exception would be if I was planning to start a family in the near future because there would be a real risk of transmitting the virus through sex to my partner. If I were a female athlete … that would depend on whether I was of reproductive age and whether I was planning to become pregnant. These are personal decisions that must be weighed individually and with serious consideration of the risks. I would not travel to any location with ongoing Zika transmission, including Brazil, if I was pregnant or planning to start a family in the near future.”

There are simple ways to reduce the risk of infection, Byrd said. “Before leaving, I would seek a pre-travel consult with a health care provider who specializes in travel medicine to ensure that I was aware of specific travel-associated risks and received appropriate vaccines and prophylactic medicines to prevent potential travel-associated infections such as Hepatitis A, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever and others,” he said. “The list of potential vaccines and prophylactic medicines will vary based on the specific location or locations where you will travel. In terms of Zika-specific precautions, I would diligently use EPA-registered insect repellents that contain at least 20 percent DEET according to the labeled instructions. I would wear clothing that limits the amount of exposed skin when outdoors, and I would choose hotel accommodations that have air conditioning and screened windows and doors. I would take great care to avoid mosquito bites.”

For the past several months, Byrd and his colleagues at the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility and from other higher education institutions have been advising local and state health officials about the virus. Attention is now focused on Brazil, where the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro that begin Friday, Aug. 5, will draw visitors from all over the U.S., including North Carolina.

Byrd said he has been requested by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide local mosquito samples for testing for Zika virus vector competence. The research team of which he is a member, which includes partners at other universities and local health departments, also has established a large-scale survey for the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which are the species most likely to be involved in transmission in North Carolina.

“We are processing mosquitoes in our lab continuously now,” Byrd said. “Last week, we added Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the survey upon request.”

Byrd and his colleagues also developed guidelines and a plan for a Public Health Entomology Response Team that includes Byrd and representatives of North Carolina State University and East Carolina University to conduct risk assessments for active Zika cases in North Carolina. “This is the cornerstone of the state’s entomologic response,” Byrd said.

In addition to being involved in the applied public health work of the research team this spring and summer, Byrd has given presentations to health directors, county health boards, environmental health specialists and physician groups; assisted with an interview process to hire a medical entomologist for the Communicable Disease Branch within the Department of Public Health in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services; and developed a webinar about mosquito-borne diseases in North Carolina for communicable disease nurses and worked with DHHS to develop a webinar for health departments about Zika virus preparedness and response.

“We are also in the process of establishing a contract through the university with the Communicable Disease Branch to provide public health and medical entomology expertise on an ongoing basis,” Byrd said.

Byrd said he intends to apply his public health experience from the current health concern to his classroom curriculum. “I plan to include Aedes survey activities in my medical entomology course this fall as part of a continued effort to include meaningful project-based learning experiences for our students,” he said. “Last year, our environmental health science students conducted surveys for the ticks that transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and conducted field work to determine the potential range of a recently invasive mosquito in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

For more information about the Zika virus and the state’s preparedness plans, contact Byrd at 828-227-2607 or bdbyrd@wcu.edu.