75ºF

Miami mosquitoes passing Zika, health officials say

Health Department: 'High likelihood' 4 cases in South Florida caught in U.S.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida health officials said Friday that there is a "high likelihood" that four cases of Zika in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were caught locally.

The Florida Department of Health said it believes the cases were likely transmitted through infected mosquitoes in a small area in Miami-Dade County, just north of downtown.

The exact location of the 1-square-mile area is within the boundaries of: NW 5th Avenue to the west, US 1 to the east, NW/NE 38th Street to the north and NW/NE 20th Street to the south.

Florida has seen a steady increase in Zika diagnoses in recent months, with the total number of cases nearing 400. But until Friday, health officials said cases stemmed from people who were infected because of travel to places such as South America, where the virus emerged last year.

Public health officials have worried for months that the virus, which is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and can cause severe birth defects, would become mosquito-borne in Florida. The state last week began investigating two potential non-travel related cases in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, followed by two more cases this week.

Gov. Rick Scott's office said Friday that one of the cases involves a woman and the other three involve men, none of whom have needed to be hospitalized.

Could more mosquitoes be infected?

The state's announcement Friday has many wondering if the disease could soon be spread by mosquitoes throughout the state, including in North Florida.

Shirley Simmons, who is expecting a baby girl in November, has been aware of Zika throughout her pregnancy. She said she worried about the virus at first, but then realized she was just adding stress to an already stressful time.

MORE: What's in a Zika prevention kit | What pregnant women should know about Zika

"It's kind of in the back of your mind, and you worry about it a little, but, again, you just live your life," Simmons said.

She said Friday's announcement does have her taking more precautions, though.

"I have decided not to travel anywhere else, just because you never know -- and they have said that it carries for two years, so I rescheduled my cruises and (am being) more mindful about where I'm going and making sure I wear the bug spray like the doctors said," Simmons said.

Dr. Mobeen Rathore, of UF Health, who is chief of infectious diseases, said that's a good step to take.

“Pregnant women in particular should have some concerns, because we know now that this virus can be transferred from the mother to the baby and cause significant problems,” Rathore said. “But I think everyone should try to protect themselves. It only makes sense, especially if you're concerned about local transmission.”

Rathore said the mosquitoes carrying the disease tend to bite during the day.

“These are daytime biters and ferocious biters,” Rathore said. “And there are things you can do. You can use insect repellent EPA approved. I think it's important to understand that these mosquitoes don't go more than 50 feet from where they breed.”

Containment state's top priority

The governor and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced a series of steps aimed at reducing the potential for mosquito bites and preventing the spread of the disease through blood.

In part, Scott said he directed the state Department of Health to contract with commercial pest-control companies to increase spraying and to take other steps to reduce mosquitoes in the targeted area of Miami-Dade. Mosquito Control districts in Miami-Dade and Broward also will receive $1.28 million from the state through December, the governor's office said.

Similarly, Putnam issued a "mosquito declaration" that will last 45 days and calls for aggressive mosquito-control efforts within 200 yards of patients' homes. That includes efforts to eliminate standing water where mosquitoes lay eggs.

"Floridians can do their part by draining standing water surrounding their homes, as it can serve as breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that are capable of transmitting the virus," Putnam said in a statement released by his office.

Scott's office also said the Department of Health will provide $620,000 to OneBlood, the primary blood bank in the area, to help ensure blood screening for Zika. Also, the department will work with the federal Food and Drug Administration and blood banks to make sure that tests are conducted on each unit of blood collected in Miami-Dade and Broward.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday requested that blood banks in the two counties temporarily halt collecting blood until safeguards are put in place. OneBlood said on its website Friday that all blood collections in the areas it serves in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina will be tested for Zika.

"With testing beginning, OneBlood operations remain business as usual and collections will continue throughout its service areas, uninterrupted," the OneBlood website said.

South Florida hard hit by virus

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health said it is continuing "door-to-door outreach" and collecting urine samples in the targeted area of Miami-Dade.

"The results from these efforts will help (the) department determine the number of people affected," the department said on its website. "These local cases were identified by clinicians who brought them to the attention of the department."

Miami-Dade and Broward also have been the hardest-hit areas of the state for travel-related Zika cases. As of Friday morning, the Department of Health's website said the state had 331 travel-related cases that did not involve pregnant women. Miami-Dade had 99 of those cases, while Broward had 55 -- substantially more than any other counties.

Florida State University public health expert Dr. Chris Uejio said the state will likely see more locally transmitted cases pop up.

“The most likely case is that we’ll continue to see these localized pockets of transmission of the Zika virus, transmitted locally during the sort of peak summer, early fall season in certain parts of Florida,” Uejio said. “That seems to be the most likely scenario.”

But Floridians don’t need to panic, he said. They just need to be prepared.

“This is not a let’s start freaking out moment," Uejio said. "It’s definitely something that all together, all pitching in, looking out for each other and employing best practices, we should be fine.”

North Florida taking precautions

There have been 17 cases in North Florida -- all are travel related -- but  some say it is just a matter of time before locally transmitted cases happen in the area.

“It heightens the concern, but it's not that major yet. Not for me,” said Clarence Fraizer.

Fraizer said he enjoys fishing and doesn't think much about mosquitoes that bite during the day.

“I have a sister-in-law that is pregnant, and she is a little concerned. She's not coming out after dark,” Fraizer said.

A city spokeswoman says that the work group made up of mosquito control, Jacksonville Fire Rescue, Emergency Preparedness and the Duval County division of the Florida Health Department has been meeting since February and is aware of Friday's developments.

"While Duval County does not have any locally transmitted cases -- each of them are travel-related -- we are continuing our daily mosquito control efforts and inspections that include comprehensive ground and aerial operations," Public Affairs Director Marsha Oliver said. "Citizens are encouraged to continue their prevention efforts including use of repellent, drainage of standing water, and etc."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that as of July 27 there were more than 6,400 confirmed cases of Zika in the U.S. and territories. More than 850 of the confirmed cases were pregnant women with evidence of the Zika virus. 

“We’ve seen many types of mosquito-borne viruses such as Chikungunya imported to our state, and we’ve been successful in limiting local transmission to small numbers,” Florida Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip said.

Florida does not release the counties for travel-related cases involving pregnant women. But the Florida Health department said it has monitored 55 pregnant women who have shown evidence of Zika.

For a state-by-state table of Zika cases in the U.S., visit www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/united-states.html.

 


About the Authors: