The Pennsylvania Department of Health took another step in its campaign to protect residents from the Zika virus. Yesterday, the department began to distribute prevention kits for pregnant women.

Symptoms from the Zika virus, which is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, are typically mild and can include fever, rash, muscle and joint pain, pink eye and headaches. However, serious birth defects, including microcephaly in which babies’ heads are smaller than normal, can occur when pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant women are infected.

Transmission of the disease occurs mainly in two ways: being bitten by an infected mosquito and from sexual contact with an infected partner. There is currently no vaccine against the virus, which was first discovered in 1947, so health officials recommend practicing mosquito avoidance.

The kits provide information about the virus and include condoms, insect repellent and tablets to kill mosquito larvae in standing water.

The latest initiative is a sign of caution from the Department of Health. The two species of mosquitos that carry Zika are rare in Pennsylvania. The mosquito species capable of spreading Zika lives in southern and southeastern Pennsylvania, but it is not very effective at spreading the virus, according to the Department of Health.

Thus far, the only confirmed cases in the commonwealth are in people who have traveled abroad and a University of Pittsburgh researcher who accidentally infected herself while working with the disease. So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 40 cases in the United States.

On June 29, the department launched a Zika Prevention and Awareness Campaign with an airport poster campaign, targeting Pennsylvanians traveling abroad to areas where Zika is prevalent, such as Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.

In its press release regarding the prevention kits, the Department of Health said, “Once warmer temperatures arrive in the commonwealth and remain in place throughout the summer months, the risk of limited local transmission of Zika virus by the type of mosquito that potentially carries it will increase.”

Monitoring of the Zika-carrying mosquito species requires different tactics than the state Department of Environmental Protection uses to monitor other mosquito species, such as those that can transmit the West Nile Virus. While no funding was specifically allocated to combat the Zika virus, the recently passed state 2016-2017 budget appropriated an additional $73,000 to West Nile Virus Control, bringing the total to more than $4 million.

Zika prevention kits for pregnant women are available free of charge and can be obtained at county health departments, federally qualified health centers, community health centers, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) offices and other nonprofit organizations that service women who are low income or homeless. Pregnant women can visit www.zika.pa.gov to find a kit provider in their area.

Christopher Reed is a PublicSource reporting intern. Reach him at creed@publicsource.org.

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