15 Zika Cases in South Florida Likely Caused by Mosquitoes; CDC Issues Travel Warning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said men and women who have recently visited the area should wait at least eight weeks before trying to conceive a child

Fifteen people are now believed to have contracted Zika through mosquito bites in the U.S., and government health officials are warning pregnant women to avoid travel to a part of Miami stricken by the virus.

In an alert issued Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged expectant mothers who frequent the area to get tested for Zika. Officials also said men and women who have recently visited the Wynwood arts district should wait eight weeks before trying to conceive a child. 

The CDC also issued the same recommendations for anyone who traveled or lived in the area where those have been affected since June 15th, the earliest known date that one of the people could have gotten the disease.

Gov. Rick Scott asked Monday for a federal emergency response team to help the state combat the spread of the virus in the U.S.

Senator Marco Rubio urged Congress to return to Washington to approve Zika funding.

A 60-year-old Miami man says he has tested positive for the Zika virus after health officials came to his house a few days ago and collected a urine sample.

Rosemary LeBranch told The Associated Press on Monday that health officials took samples from her as well as her mother and father, Gabriel Jean, who tested positive.

She says her father has spoken with a doctor and was advised to wear long shirts and pants when he goes outside. The doctor warned him that he wouldn't feel well, but LeBranch said he doesn't have a fever or feel any pain.

Officials announced four cases on Friday, believed to be first people to contract the virus from mosquitoes within the 50 states. Ten more cases were announced Monday, and a Florida Department of Health update sent Tuesday gave the total non-travel-related infections as 15.

The CDC's emergency response team will help Florida officials in their investigation, sample collection and mosquito control efforts. The White House said the CDC team would be deployed to Florida "in short order." 

Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, said that the travel alert was issued because more cases have been diagnosed and because mosquito control efforts had not worked as well as hoped. Although the CDC has recommended pregnant women not travel to Puerto Rico, Frieden knew of no similar advisories in recent years for the continental United States.

The type of mosquito that spreads the Zika virus, Aedes aegypti, is a difficult mosquito to control, Frieden said. It might also have developed a resistant to the types of insecticides being used in Florida and might be breeding in small amounts of standing water that have not been discovered.

"Nothing that we've seen indicates widespread transmission but it's certainly possible that there could be sustained transmission in small areas," he said.

Frieden said that although health officials now know that Zika can cause microcephaly, they do not know what effects it might have on children born to mothers who do not have obvious symptoms.

He denied that the CDC limited the travel warning to a small area at the request of Florida, trying to protect its tourism industry. The mosquitos do not travel more than 150 meters in their lifetime, he said.

"So there wouldn't be a technical or scientific basis to give a broader recommendation," he said.

But he said health officials would evaluate the data every day and make changes if needed. 

Zika is such a mild disease that most who get it don't even know they've been infected, but it can lead to severe brain-related birth defects if women are infected during pregnancy. The disease has swept through Latin America and the Caribbean in recent months. 

Florida health officials said they've tested more than 200 people in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties after reports of local transmissions of the virus in early July. Of the 14 people infected, two are women and 12 are men. 

"We will continue to keep our residents and visitors safe utilizing constant surveillance and aggressive strategies, such as increased mosquito spraying, that have allowed our state to fight similar viruses," Scott said in a statement. 

The Florida infections are thought to have occurred in a small area just north of downtown Miami, in the Wynwood arts district. The travel warning covers an area of about one square mile in Wynwood to the east of Interstate 95 and south of Interstate 195. 

U.S. health officials do not expect widespread outbreaks of the sort seen in Brazil and in Latin America and the Caribbean, in part because of better sanitation, better mosquito control and wider use of window screens and air conditioners. 

The area, known for murals spray-painted across warehouses, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques, is rapidly gentrifying and has a number of construction sites where standing water can collect and serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes. 

Many walking the streets recently were unaware the virus had spread and confused about how the disease is transmitted. 

Jordan Davison and Melissa Felix work for a cruise line and were enjoying their day off Monday looking at the murals in the neighborhood. 

"It's not like a big thing right?" said 25-year-old Davidson. "It's kind of freaky — there's so much going on we didn't know, didn't really think about it ... I might wear bug spray going forward." 

More than 1,650 cases of Zika have been reported in U.S. states that were linked either with travel or having sex with a returned traveler, another way the virus can spread. 

Bakery owner Mariana Cortez isn't worried that Zika is going to keep locals and tourists from eating her delicious desserts. 

"Mosquitoes are not enough of a reason to not come pick up your cake ... I don't think my business is going to be effected by Zika." 

On Friday, Florida agricultural officials immediately announced more aggressive mosquito-control efforts, and Florida politicians rushed to assure tourists it's still safe to visit the state.

On Feb. 12, Gov. Scott directed the state surgeon general to activate a Zika Virus Information Hotline for current Florida residents and visitors, as well as anyone planning on traveling to Florida in the near future. The number for the Zika Virus Information Hotline is 1-855-622-6735.

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