Zika In Miami: Dreaded Foreign Virus Becomes Local Nightmare For U.S.

Zika has become a homegrown problem in the United States, with 10 cases announced by Florida authorities following four cases in the same Miami area last Friday. Of the 14 people believed to have been infected by local mosquitoes for the first time on the U.S. mainland, two are women and 12 men.

According to the Toronto Star, all 14 Zika cases are thought to have occurred in Miami’s Wynwood arts district, a trendy community of warehouses, art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques. U.S. residents wary of the health calamity in Brazil, where the virus has caused more than 1,700 babies to be born with unusually small heads, are now getting their fears realized.

In January, a travel advisory was issued for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where people displayed symptoms of Zika, including the same fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes experienced by eight of the Miami patients. The virus was not readily evident in the other Miami sufferers because the disease can be mild to the point that people are unaware they’ve been infected.

Spraying against Zika

The over 1,600 cases of Zika previously reported in the U.S. are classified as being non-local in origin; it was imported via travelers infected elsewhere. The Miami cases marked the first time the virus, known to cause birth defects and is, therefore, dangerous to pregnant women, was blamed on local mosquitoes.

The World Health Organization reports the Zika virus, which can also spread by sexual contact, to have occurred in 67 countries and territories since 2015. Adding to these statistics, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced on Monday that the number of identified cases in Miami had jumped by 10 to 14.

The Toronto Star article featured health officials coming to the home of Rosemary LeBranch in Wynwood, where she was doing laundry and taking urine samples from her, her daughter, and her father. Her father, Gabriel Jean, who tested positive for the Zika virus, was advised to wear long shirts and pants in the Miami outdoors. She told reporters of his condition on Monday.

“He said nothing hurts; he doesn’t have any pain. He doesn’t feel anything,” she explained.

According to Al Jazeera, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Tom Frieden issued a Zika warning on Monday for people in Wynwood. Noting that the virus can cause the birth defect known as microcephaly, Frieden gave the following word of caution for those intending to visit the one-mile arts and restaurant section north of central Miami.

“We advise pregnant women to avoid travel to this area. In Miami, aggressive mosquito control measures don’t seem to be working as well as we would have liked. Nothing that we have seen indicates widespread transmission but it is certainly possible there could be sustained transmission in small areas.”

Brazilian baby

Frieden also gave the Zika alert to pregnant women who live in or may have traveled to Miami since June 15. He strongly suggested they consult with their doctor and urged them to use barrier protection during sex or to abstain in order to lower the risk of transmission from a partner.

Other precautionary measures he recommended are using mosquito repellant, wearing long sleeves, repairing screens, and draining any standing water to prevent the spread of the mosquitoes. He warned that mosquitoes can be resistant to current insecticides or may have hidden breeding areas that haven’t been found yet. Not only is this type of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, difficult to control, most people with Zika, as in six of the 14 Miami patients, do not show any symptoms.

According to the New York Times, Ovation Vacations president Jack Ezon in New York said that his agency received 22 reservation cancellations on Monday for trips to Florida over the next six months. Also noting that about four times as many people called for information regarding the travel advisory, he offered this reason.

“Yesterday, the news was terrorism. Today, the news is Zika.”

While the airline JetBlue indicated it would allow refunds for people with “concerns of traveling to Zika-impacted areas confirmed by the C.D.C.,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said his company would not issue refunds, even for pregnant women.

On behalf of A.A. which has a hub in Miami, he elaborated, “The C.D.C. advisory doesn’t tell people they shouldn’t travel to Miami.”

Rosen College of Hospitality Management dean Abraham Pizam said that if the travel advisory had any effect on tourism, it would be only “for a very short period of time,” suggesting the Zika scare would not put a big dent in the number of tourists visiting Florida, especially Miami.

Melanie Hernandez, 20, who works for the Marine Layer clothing store in Wynwood, told the New York Times on Monday that Zika in Miami worries her. Although she does not plan to get pregnant anytime soon, being near the virus is a cause for concern.

“I looked up the symptoms online after I heard that Wynwood is ground zero for Zika. Obviously you’re scared, because you never know.”

There was little obvious worry for 22-year-old bartender Virgil Cantú. He shrugged off the Zika virus on Monday at the Bar Next Door in Miami’s Wynwood district.

“I haven’t seen any panic,” he said.

[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]