February 5, 2016

Wisconsin DHS epidemiologist addresses Zika virus concerns

The first known case of Zika virus transmission in the United States was reported  by local health officials in Texas on Tuesday.

In a potentially alarming development, the Texas case is believed to have been  contracted through sex, and not a mosquito bite. News of the Texas case came a day after the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency.

Zika virus poses a special concern for pregnant women — with an enormous increase in birth abnormalities in South America. Wisconsin Division of Public Health epidemiologist Diep Hoang Johnson said this week that pregnant women should avoid travel to the affected regions.

She said there are specific recommendations — including ultrasounds — for pregnant women who have made such a trip.

“There is a concern that even if they don’t have symptoms, the virus can cross the placenta, and can affect the fetus,” Johnson said. “If they come back and they don’t have symptoms, they still need to talk to their physicians.”

Zika virus can be transmitted from the mother to the baby during pregnancy. The virus has been reported in more than 30 countries and linked to microcephaly, in which babies have abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.

Zika is in the same family of viruses as West Nile, another mosquito borne illness that has become familiar in Wisconsin.

About 80 percent of people who are infected with Zika virus may not have any symptoms. Illness may develop in 20 percent of infected people within 3 to 7 days after a bite from an infected mosquito. Symptoms are generally mild and can last for several days to a week. Common symptoms of Zika virus infection include fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), photophobia (sensitivity to light), muscle pain or headache.

Severe symptoms and fatalities are uncommon. There is presently no vaccine, prophylactic or specific medication available to treat Zika virus illness.

Advice to snow shovelers: take it easy

If you’re clearing away snow this morning, make sure to take it easy on yourself. “If you aren’t the most active person the world, or have history of heart trouble, make sure you’re talking to your doctor even before you’re going out and doing this kind of thing,” said Tod Pritchard with Wisconsin Emergency Management.

“If you’re feeling tired, like your heart is beating strong, you just don’t feel right, stop. Take a deep breath, take some time off, don’t push yourself.

Up to a foot of heavy, wet snow fell across a significant portion of Wisconsin — and there are almost certain to be some emergency room visits resulting from heart attacks and back injuries.

Even if you’re using a snowblower, you still need to play it safe. “The classic problem in these kinds of wet, heavy snowstorms is the snowblower getting jammed up, and someone sticking a hand in there to try to clear it out. Never, ever do that,” Pritchard said.

It’s also important to dress appropriately, and to make sure you’re adequately hydrated, before you tackle that sidewalk or driveway. Mayo Clinic has some advice from physicians on how to stay safe while shoveling.

Weather pushes blood supplies to critically low levels

givebloodSevere winter weather has left blood supplies for many hospitals at critically low levels. Katie Marshall, spokesperson for the Midwest region of the Red Cross, says there’s an “emergency need” for blood donors.

“What we’re seeing at this point is that the blood that’s coming in is going out to hospitals just as quickly as donors can come in to give it,” Marshall said.

Blood supplies were already low at the start of the year because of the usual slowdown in donations around the holidays. But, supplies have been further depleted by winter storms. A handful of blood drives in Wisconsin are among the more than 300 blood drives that have been cancelled across 20 states since January 1.

Blood supplies have been hit especially hard by the blizzard that struck the East Coast. “Many blood drives have been cancelled for days on end, so that really takes a toll on the whole blood supply nationwide.”

Blood donation appointments can be scheduled by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting, or calling 1-800-RED CROSS.

Bill would ease sales of Wisconsin water utilities

photo (6)A bill advancing at the Capitol could make it easier to sell public water utilities in Wisconsin to private investors.

A state Senate committee approved the measure (AB 554) in a partisan vote on Thursday. The full Assembly has already passed the bill.

Critics say the legislation would make it more difficult to put such sales to a public referendum. The bill’s language states that referendums would be optional rather than mandatory.

Curt Witynski is with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which supports the bill. “We’re not supportive of direct democracy for every single policy decision that local government makes,” he said.

“The bill makes it much harder, and introduces hurdles, to getting that public voice involved in the process,” said Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for Clean Wisconsin. “It really seems counter intuitive to have a bill that actually is encouraging private, for profit out-of-state companies to come in and own our water.”

Opponents of the bill say customer rates have often increased in the wake of water utilities being sold to for profit operators.

Some have also suggested that the bill’s passage could put Wisconsin communities for the sort of crisis afflicting the residents of Flint, Michigan, where the city’s drinking water contains dangerously toxic levels of lead.

“I honestly don’t understand the connection (to Flint) whatsoever,” said Witynski. He said the bill changes the process for selling a water utility, while the situation in Flint represents a systemic failure by local, state and federal officials to protect the city’s residents.

According to lobbying information from the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the bill is also supported by Aqua America, Inc., a water and wastewater utility holding company with subsidiaries in 8 states including Illinois.

Brown County residents demand action on wind farm complaints

Debate about the health impact of wind turbines in southern Brown County led to heated discussion Wednesday night at a meeting of the county’s Human Services Committee.

Neighbors of Duke Energy’s Shirley Wind Farm say the turbines cause problems ranging from headaches to nausea. Residents pressured the committee to take action, and slammed Brown County Health Director Chua Xiong for her decision last month that insufficient scientific evidence exists to blame the turbines for health problems.

Some of the more than 60 people who jammed into the hearing room wore brightly colored t-shirts and carried signs that said “I am the evidence.” They also accused Xiong of ignoring some the available scientific evidence that connects the big turbines to health issue.

The Committee wants to the state to come up with $250,000 to fund a study. The Brown County Board could vote on a formal request to the state next month. But there’s no gurantee the state will write the check.

North Carolina-based Duke Energy Renewables, the company that operates the Shirley Wind Farm, has said the sounds produced by the turbines can not be linked to health problems.