As summer approaches — and with mosquito season already underway — area camps are adding a possible concern to the usual ones of sunburn and swimming mishaps.
That’s the Zika virus, declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization. Congress is considering its response to President Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to develop a vaccine for Zika, which can cause brain defects in fetuses, and a plan to control the spread of the mosquitos that carry the virus.
In the face of the facts about Zika, camp personnel are cautious but calm.
Jonah Geller, director of Capital Camps, based in Waynesboro, Pa., said that regardless of the degree of medical concern, every camp takes seriously the “health, safety and welfare of every camper and staff member.”
“We’re constantly consulting with the Pennsylvania Board of Health, the American Camp Association [ACA] and our medical committee to keep on the pulse of the best practices, whether about Zika, lice treatment, being out in thunderstorms or cuts and bruises,” he said. “This gives great comfort to parents.”
Anxiety over Zika has mounted somewhat because researchers have detected the virus in Aedes albopictus, the mosquito species known as the “Asian tiger.” This increases the number of states potentially at risk for transmission of the disease, including jurisdictions in the Washington area.
Formerly, the Aedes aegypti species had been considered the primary cause of the spread of Zika elsewhere in the Americas. During the summer months, albopictus are more common, with a range as far north as New England and the lower Great Lakes.
Most people infected with the Zika virus won’t even know they have the disease because they’ll have no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain and headache. The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week.
Typically, youngsters who get the virus show no symptoms or mild ones, like a rash or headache, said Phran Edelman, program director of Camp Shoresh in Adamstown in Maryland’s Frederick County.
“We will encourage campers to wear repellent and not go to areas of standing water,” she said of her camp’s Zika-prevention protocol. “We will monitor those areas. Other than that, there’s not much we can do about Zika. There are probably bigger issues, like sunburn.”
The incubation period for the Zika virus disease is not known, but is likely to be a few days to a week.
The virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week but it can be found longer in some people. There is no vaccine to prevent the disease and no medicine to treat it.
Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.
Bini Silver, chief administrative officer of the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center, said its camps will be following closely what the CDC and other health authorities recommend, including using more bug spray than usual and staying away from areas where mosquitoes breed.
“If conditions change and become more critical, we’ll take another look at the guidelines,” he said.
The Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia’s camp program is “primarily indoors,” so personnel are concerned but are “taking no immediate steps,” said Brian Grossbard, director of the JCC’s Camp Achva.
“We will keep track of the CDC recommendations. These are part of the steps we take in general to protect children from nature-related situations,” Grossbard said.
The JCC of Greater Washington’s camp in Rockville “will be following any ACA and Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommendations,” said Phil Liebson, the camp’s director.
Despite the discovery of the virus in an additional species of mosquito, at least one expert believes there is no cause for increased alarm.
Robert Edelman, clinical professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that that the albopictus mosquito is not an efficient species for spreading the virus.
“Zika doesn’t grow well in this species of mosquito,” he said. “At present, there is no demonstrable transfer from this species to human in the United States. They need human beings to feed on.”
Moreover, Edelman said, this is not a common mosquito in the Washington area. The danger is greater in warmer areas, such as Miami, where people are emigrating from affected areas, like the Caribbean.
Still, the infectious diseases expert doesn’t discount the need for precautions and for alleviating the anxiety of campers and their parents. These include eliminating breeding places and using mosquito repellent.
Much as with sunscreen, “You have to use the long-lasting ones, not the ones that last two or three hours and then evaporate,” Edelman said. “And you have to revisit it after evaporation and certainly after showers.”
Barbara Trainin Blank is a Washington-area writer.