Zika spreads to Miami Beach, fresh travel warnings issued

Federal health officials have warned pregnant women and those planning to conceive to stay away from Zika affected areas in Florida.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen inside Oxitec laboratory in Campinas, Brazil on February 2, 2016.

US health officials have issued fresh travel warnings for pregnant women after five new cases of Zika were found in the tourist hotspot of Miami Beach, signaling the spread of local transmission of a virus blamed for birth defects.

Pregnant women and those planning to conceive have been urged to stay away from two areas, a 3.9 square kilometer section of Miami Beach and a neighborhood north of downtown called Wynwood, where mosquitoes are actively spreading the disease, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

While the formal travel advisory for pregnant women is limited to two active transmission zones, pregnant women and their partners "may also consider postponing non-essential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County," CDC chief Tom Frieden told reporters.

Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Image: Reuters

Throughout Miami-Dade County, a vast area with 2 million residents and 20,000 pregnant women, "there is the possibility that there could be transmission that hasn't yet been identified," Frieden said during a conference call.

The five cases in Miami Beach involve two local residents and three tourists, hailing from New York, Texas and Taiwan, Florida Governor Rick Scott told a news conference.

Florida now has 36 cases of locally transmitted Zika virus, according to the State Department of Health.

The state has a total of 524 cases of Zika, most of them brought in by people who were infected while traveling to areas of Latin America where the virus is spreading.

Challenge to Tourism Industry

The new warnings represent a challenge to Florida's multibillion dollar tourism industry, with Miami Beach accounting for nearly half of visitor stays in the Greater Miami area.

They also heighten concerns over Zika's spread in the continental United States.

Travel expert Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group, said the Zika outbreak in South Florida could jeopardise travel in the area.

"Even if 1 or 2 percent of potential travelers decide not to go to Florida, whether it’s for leisure or for business, there could be a multimillion dollar hit to the local economy."

Florida officials have faced questions about why it took so long to announce the new Zika transmission zone, with some critics accusing the governor of delaying the announcement to avoid scaring off visitors crucial to the state's lucrative tourism industry.

The governor on Thursday called on state business and health associations to work with the tourism industry on Zika prevention and education.

He also called on the state health department to offer mosquito spraying to hotels, restaurants and attractions in Miami-Dade County at no cost.

The CDC said the first Miami Beach case was identified in late July.

Why Be Scared?

Zika causes only mild symptoms for most people.

But in pregnant women, it can cause microcephaly, a deformation in which babies are born with abnormally small brains and heads.

Zika has also been linked to a potentially fatal disorder known as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can lead to nervous system problems such as weakness and paralysis.

Only Florida State Affected

So far, Florida is the only state in the mainland US where it has been reported.

More than two dozen people are believed to have been infected since then by mosquitoes carrying the virus in Wynwood.

TRTWorld and agencies