MIAMI (AP) - Government health officials warned pregnant women yesterday to avoid a Zika-stricken section of Miami and arrange to be tested for the virus if they have visited the Wynwood neighbourhood since mid-June after the number of people feared infected through mosquito bites in the United States climbed to 14.
In a highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented travel warning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also said men and women who have recently been to the affected area should wait at least eight weeks before trying to conceive a child.
All 14 cases are thought to have occurred in Miami’s Wynwood arts district, a trendy, fast-gentrifying neighbourhood of warehouses, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques.
Florida Governor Rick Scott asked for a CDC emergency response team to help the state combat Zika, which after sweeping Latin America and the Caribbean is beginning to spread in the US. The White House said a team will be sent quickly.
On Friday, health officials announced four cases of Zika that they believe are the first ones contracted from mosquitoes on the US mainland. Ten more cases were announced yesterday.
Zika infections in pregnant women can cause severe brain-related birth defects. The outbreak has led to more than 1,800 cases of microcephaly, in which a baby is born with an extremely small head.
US health officials have said all along that while isolated clusters of Zika may occur in this country, they do not expect major outbreaks like those seen in Latin America, because of better sanitation and mosquito control and widespread use of air conditioners and window screens.
CDC officials said they could not remember another time in the 70-year history of the agency when it told members of the public not to travel to a certain place within the United States.
The travel warning covers an area of about one square mile in Wynwood to the east of Interstate 95 and south of I-195. It’s large enough, health officials said, to provide a buffer around the suspected hot zone. The tropical mosquito that spreads Zika travels less than 200 yards in its lifetime.
Some experts said that is far too small a radius. Dr Peter Hotez, a tropical medicine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said the CDC should be more cautious and expand the travel advisory to all of Miami-Dade County.
“If you’re pregnant or think you might be pregnant, avoid travel to Miami, and possible elsewhere in South Florida,” he said. “I’m guessing most women who are pregnant are doing that. I don’t think they’re sitting around for the CDC to split hairs and fine-tune it to a specific area.”
CDC director Dr Tom Frieden said the narrowly drawn warning was dictated by science and not by any concern for Florida’s crucial tourism industry. He said it was based on the nation’s ability to contain outbreaks of other diseases carried by the same mosquito. “There wouldn’t be a technical or scientific basis to give a broader recommendation,” he said.
Florida health officials said they have tested more than 200 people in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties since early July. The CDC emergency team will help Florida officials investigate the outbreak, collect samples and control mosquitoes.
Of the 14 people infected, two are women and 12 are men. Eight patients showed symptoms of Zika, which can include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. The others had no symptoms. The disease is often so mild that most people do not know they are infected.
“We will continue to keep our residents and visitors safe utilising constant surveillance and aggressive strategies, such as increased mosquito spraying, that have allowed our state to fight similar viruses,” the governor said in a statement.
More than 1,650 cases of Zika have been reported in US states, nearly all the result of travel to a Zika-stricken country or sex with someone who was infected abroad.
Last week Bahamas health officials reinforced their efforts to combat the potential spread of the Zika virus to the country, again issuing notices that residents have the biggest role to play in prevention. Officials confirmed that their screening and prevention activities have, up to July 9, already addressed 56 potential Zika cases, all resulting in negative readings.
“As it stands, local health officials have implemented a special clinic for persons travelling to and returning from areas affected by the Zika virus. Additionally, source reduction and activities to decrease the mosquito population such as treatment of water sources and fogging are ongoing,” a statement read by Chief Medical Officer Glen Beneby said.
“Zika is transmitted primarily by the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, the same mosquito that transmit dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever viruses. This mosquito is present in the Bahamas. These mosquitos are commonly found around the home and breed in any standing water sources.” Dr Beneby described the Aedes aegypti as an aggressive “day biter” with increased biting activity “two hours after sunrise and several hours before sunset. Other modes of transmission have been identified, including passing the Zika infection from mother to baby and sexual transmission from infected partners. Cases of blood transfusion and laboratory worker infections have also been documented.”
He warned that people who suspect that they are infected, if they do engage in sexual activities, to use condoms from start to finish. He also urged suspected carriers to refrain from participating in sexual activities with a woman who is or can become pregnant. “The best thing to do would be to abstain from sex while infected,” he added.
Ten days ago, five cases of Zika infection were confirmed in Turks and Caicos Islands.