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Fears over the Zika virus have heightened with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issuing a travel warning advising pregnant women and their partners not to go to Wynwood, a small community north of downtown Miami. Fourteen cases have been discovered at last count, but this number could increase as the virus spreads and more undetected cases are reported, said Peter Hotez, a physician who is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex. The need of the hour is federal funding to contain and combat the outbreak in Southern Florida and along the Gulf Coast, said Hotez, who is also chair of tropical pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
Meanwhile, the outbreak is also hurting businesses, especially tourism, according to Jane Wooldridge, business editor of the Miami Herald.
Hotez and Wooldridge discussed the latest developments in the Zika outbreak on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Here are five key takeaways from their conversation:
A Widening Vulnerability: The Zika virus was originally detected in a one-square-mile area in Miami, but Hotez warned that the area could enlarge to include other parts of the city. “The whole city [of Miami] is at risk,” he said, pointing out that not all the people that are affected may have been identified, and also that people with Zika in the bloodstream could travel to other parts of the city. Pregnant women with the Zika virus face the risk of contracting microcephaly, a medical condition that causes their babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
Many Zika cases detected thus far involve mothers who acquired the virus in Latin America and the Caribbean and came to the U.S. to give birth, delivering babies with microcephaly. “The big concern is … seven, eight or nine months from now, as we go into the spring of 2017, we might see microcephaly in babies born to mothers who’ve never left the country and who’ve been in continental U.S.,” he said. “That will be an unacceptable tragedy.”
The Zika virus threat may not extend beyond mid- to late summer or early fall into the winter as the Aedes Aegypti mosquito typically thrives in summer. “Six weeks from now, we should expect to see a steep decline … and the threat, at least for this year, will go away,” said Hotez. However, July, August and September will see a big jump in the population of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, he noted. “This is going to be the crunch time of when we are going to start seeing Zika transmission,” he added.
Containing and Prevention: In addition to spraying chemicals to contain the virus, the Florida state department, local health authorities and the CDC are cautioning pregnant women or those who think they might be pregnant to stay indoors — in air conditioning if they can — and use repellents. “That’s not as trivial as it sounds, especially for working women or especially women in low-income areas where they may not have adequate housing,” said Hotez. Other actions include surveillance, or testing people in an around the area for symptoms.
According to Hotez, the task of controlling the Aedes Aegypti mosquito in the U.S. is “difficult,” because most of the mosquito-control operations in the country have focused on the Culex mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus.
“The big concern is … seven, eight or nine months from now, as we go into the spring of 2017, we might see microcephaly in babies born to mothers who’ve never left the country and who’ve been in continental U.S.” –Peter Hotez
Zika and the Olympics: Fears over Zika have prompted many U.S. athletes to decide against participating in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. However, “Rio de Janeiro may be one of the safer places in the western hemisphere right now,” said Hotez. He explained that August happens to be wintertime in Brazil, and that Zika transmission now is much lower than during May-June last year, when it was at its peak.
Federal Funding Needed: According to Hotez, the latest outbreak was detected in Miami because the city has strong state and county health departments, which is not necessarily the case in other counties of the state. “That is precisely why federal funding from Congress is needed to strengthen the health systems in other Florida counties,” he said. “The fact that that has not happened means Congress has put the Gulf Coast and Florida at risk for Zika outbreaks happening that go unnoticed and unobserved,” he said. Wooldridge said she expected the call for federal funding to combat the outbreak could become a bigger issue in Florida in the coming weeks.
Business Impact: Wooldridge said the outbreak is affecting tourism, and that Wynwood, the neighborhood identified by the CDC, is a popular tourist destination with many restaurants. As it happens, August is “Miami Spice” month, she noted. Many restaurants in the city are offering promotional prices, according to a report in her newspaper. Also, businesses in the area have been getting requests from employees who want to work remotely, she said. The law requires them to make such accommodations for all employees who request them and not just pregnant women, she noted.