Zika and Your Florida Vacation

U.S. presence now has many concerned, confused and scared to take chances

You’ve had the flight and hotel booked for months now, and it’s the vacation you’ve been waiting for all summer — a trip to the sandy beaches of southern Florida.

So what do you do now that the mosquitos carrying the Zika virus have reached U.S. shores?

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Health officials as of Monday are now warning women who are pregnant or who are planning to get pregnant, to avoid the Miami neighborhood where the Zika virus has now been confirmed in 14 people, up from four last Friday. Further recommendations are for pregnant women and their partners living in this area to consistently follow steps to prevent mosquito bites and sexual transmission of Zika.

Pregnant women who traveled to this area on or after June 15, 2016, should also talk with their healthcare provider and should be tested for Zika. Even those without symptoms should be tested for Zika virus infection in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy.

Local, state and federal officials are working fast to contain the outbreak to a four-block area in Miami where transmission of Zika appears to be centered.

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“We know from our experience with successfully dealing with other mosquito-borne viruses in our state that through constant surveillance and immediate action, we will protect our families and visitors,” said Florida Governor Rick Scott in a statement Friday.

“We will continue this same approach as we work to combat the Zika virus in our state. Florida is an outdoors state with pristine beaches, award-winning state parks and world-class fishing. We continue to welcome record visitors to Florida and will remind everyone in our state to take proper precautions and wear insect repellent.”

Health officials elsewhere, however, aren’t taking any chances.

Over the weekend, Public Health England increased its risk designation for Florida from low to medium. The agency is now advising any woman who may be pregnant to delay nonessential travel to Florida given the latest developments.

“We’ve changed our plans of having another child because we don’t want to risk it,” said one Florida mother.

And while insect repellant sounds great — but mosquitoes in Florida are as plentiful as oxygen.

Emily Smith, a nurse and mother who lives in Miami, believes it’s impossible to avoid getting bitten. “We put on bug spray, and we try not to go out late at night,” Smith told LifeZette. “But I’m covered in mosquito bites. I have 20 or 30 bites. Even when we go to the pool at 10:00 in the morning, there are still tons of mosquitoes.”

Wearing long sleeves and pants in the heat of the Florida summer is not realistic. “I’ve never been so hot in my life,” Smith said.

She and her husband, Drew Smith, recently moved to Miami. Before they moved, they looked into the spread of the Zika virus. They thought it wouldn’t be a big deal because there hadn’t been any locally transmitted cases yet. But Smith now says they consider Zika too big of a risk to take.

“We’ve definitely changed our plans of having another child because we don’t want to risk it,” she said. “We’re going to wait until they find a vaccine. If I did get pregnant, I would move out-of-state during the pregnancy.”

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Smith hopes there will be more funding provided for the search for a vaccine. To date, the CDC has given Florida $35 million for Zika-specific funding and emergency response efforts. But Congress left for the summer without providing any long-term funding — thus stalling the money needed for vaccine development.

There are more than 6,400 confirmed cases of the Zika virus as of now — up 1,200 from last week — in various U.S. states and territories. Until recently, all the cases in the states were the result of travel.

The Zika virus comes with unpleasant symptoms for adults — a rash, joint pain, a fever — but it isn’t usually alarming. However, pregnant women with an active case of Zika can give birth to children with serious defects, such as hearing loss, impaired growth, and microcephaly — which means the baby’s brain and head will not fully develop.

If a woman is planning to get pregnant and lives in an area at risk for Zika, her options for testing are also limited. Only a few labs in the U.S. are certified to test for the virus, so blood and urine samples will likely have to be shipped for testing. Results can take up to four weeks to process. Recent studies have shown that viral strains are not always detected accurately — and 20 to 80 percent of patients can receive an incorrect diagnosis.

Nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned to begin with, which has health officials increasingly concerned that those most vulnerable to the virus will not be taking precautions to avoid the mosquitos.

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In a press release issued by the CDC, officials encouraged pregnant women in Florida to take precautionary measures: “Use an insect repellent registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, use or repair screens on windows and doors, use air conditioning when available, and remove standing water where mosquitoes can lay eggs.”

But even precautionary measures may not be enough: “We anticipate that there may be additional cases of ‘homegrown’ Zika in the coming weeks,” said Lyle Petersen, M.D., M.P.H., incident manager for CDC’s Zika virus response, in a press release. “Our top priority is to protect pregnant women from the potentially devastating harm caused by Zika.”

“We’re committed to sharing as much as we can as soon as we can,” Florida Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip added. “Our top priority is the safety and well-being of all people in Florida and a big part of that is being accessible. If you have questions, please call the Zika hotline at 1-855-622-6735.”

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