Educating the public about Zika is now AgriLife Extension’s ‘priority-one’

by Steve Byrnes, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Educating the public to protect themselves from Zika has become “priority one” for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, a state leader said. 

AgriLife Extension is tasked with educating the public on a great number of topics for all ages, but in a bold unprecedented move, the agency has harnessed its statewide presence to prepare the public against this ever-increasing threat, said Dr. Susan Ballabina, executive associate director, College Station.

“As I expect most Texans are aware, the Zika virus — spread mainly by the A. aegypti and A. albopictus mosquitoes — is a very real threat to the health of unborn babies,” Ballabina said. “With recent cases in Florida almost certainly stemming from local mosquitoes, our experts warn it’s only a matter of time before the same occurs in our state.”

“AgriLife Extension has a strong history of addressing emerging issues and the Zika issue is another opportunity to provide our citizens with information to minimize the threat.”

Ballabina said the timing is right because so far no vaccine has been developed, so raising public awareness on ways to avoid mosquito bites is the best — and really the only — protection at this time. 

The department of entomology at Texas A&M University and Texas A&M AgriLife Communications have developed a comprehensive set of educational resources for AgriLife Extension agents to use in their statewide outreach efforts, Ballabina said.

“Every day, the universities and agencies in the Texas A&M University System are finding and implementing solutions for the real-world problems facing Texans,” said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. “So, it makes sense that our experts would take the lead in addressing the Zika threat in our great state and beyond.”

Dr. Charles Allen, AgriLife Extension entomologist and state integrated pest management  coordinator at San Angelo, led a team of entomologists in compiling the resource information now being used by AgriLife Extension agents. He credited Dr. Mike Merchant, AgriLife Extension urban entomologist at Dallas, and Dr. Sonja Swiger, AgriLife Extension livestock and veterinary entomologist at Stephenville, with providing and compiling the bulk of the information into an easy-to-use straightforward format.

“The real challenge here is to convince individual adults, most of whom are not at high risk, to protect themselves from being bitten by mosquitoes to avoid contracting and then spreading the disease,” Allen said. “It’s not so much for their well-being, but for the good of our most vulnerable, the unborn. We need individuals to step up and avoid getting mosquito bitten for the good of growing families in our communities.  Without preventative or treatment therapies, avoiding the heart-wrenching damage caused by Zika is all about avoiding mosquito bites.”

The main cause for concern is the Zika virus may cause microcephaly, a condition where the fetal brain and head do not fully develop and reach normal size, Merchant said.

Allen said AgriLife Extension is the obvious agency for raising widespread awareness and prodding Texans to action.

“AgriLife Extension has a grassroots urban and rural presence in all 254 Texas counties, something no other entity can claim,” he said. “We also employ highly educated technical experts schooled in mosquito management and bite prevention, currently the only two avenues of protection. The set of educational resources has been produced in both English and Spanish and offers basic information on how people can avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.”

AgriLife Extension agents are delivering mosquito suppression and bite prevention information to their communities through newspapers, radio, TV, social media, videos, a web-delivered interactive learning module, presentations for civic groups, infographic posters and printed materials for mail-outs distributed through the offices of obstetricians and gynecologists.

“We’ve pulled out all the stops for this statewide educational effort to empower Texans to realize they must protect themselves from mosquito bites, thus saving our most precious resource, literally the future of Texas, from widespread Zika-related debilitating birth defects,” Allen said.

For more information, contact Merchant at m-merchant@tamu.edu  or Swiger at slswiger@ag.tamu.edu or see http://www.texasinsects.org/zika-virus-information.html .

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