Montgomery Co. health leader warns of local Zika dangers

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Ulder Tillman wants you to cover up this summer.

Tillman is not a member of the fashion police — she’s trying to get people to defend themselves against mosquito-borne illnesses, such as the Zika virus.

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Ulder Tillman
Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Ulder Tillman wore some of the clothing she recommends to protect against Zika. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

The county’s chief health officer showed up to brief the Montgomery County Council Tuesday in a hat, long sleeves, long pants tucked into her socks, and a can of insect repellent in hand.

“I’m here to give you information on what has been a growing and concerning issue, and that is about Zika virus,” Tillman said.

Council member Marc Elrich, often teased by his colleagues for his well-known aversion to ties and formal wear, said “I guess we’re going to have an uncomfortable summer — I can’t imagine wearing long-sleeve shirts.”

Tillman jumped in, “Oh try! Try for me, try for your family, try for your neighbors!”

Tillman explained that while all eight of Maryland’s cases of Zika were travel-related — that is they were contracted by people who had traveled to areas where Zika is active — she pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control has reported that the range of mosquitoes that can carry Zika has expanded to include Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. Also, Tillman pointed out that the virus can be transmitted from a mother to her fetus, from one sexual partner to another, and by blood transfusions.

“It’s important to remember that only 20 percent of people who get this virus have symptoms,” Tillman said.

Along with preventing mosquitoes from biting, Tillman is urging homeowners and businesses to take a very hard look at areas on their property that could harbor mosquitoes.

“Get rid of tires that can hold water, it’s time to do gutter cleaning,” but the efforts should not be restricted to the outdoors, Tillman said. She explained the mosquitoes that transmit Zika “like to live indoors with us” and they breed in containers as small as a pet’s water dish or a vase.

“So rather than having cut flowers in standing water, think about having potted plants instead,” Tillman told the council members.

As the weather warms up, Tillman noted lots of people like to throw open their doors and windows to enjoy the fresh air. She says that’s fine, as long as they make sure to have screens in good repair.

“I’m going to say something that may not be appreciated — many of our restaurants are open-air restaurants. I’m asking them to reconsider that decision,” she said.

Tillman was quick to say there’s no problem with outside seating, but for restaurants that have large, open windows without screens, the indoor area could become a harbor for mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus. Leaving those large windows open so that mosquitoes could find a home indoors gives Tillman concern.

Tillman was asked about whether the county or state would endorse a spraying program. She told the council members the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Agriculture have been working together on plans to attack the virus, and those should be made public soon.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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