Federal health officials on Friday warned pregnant women not to travel to trendy Miami Beach after Florida confirmed that the mosquito-borne Zika virus was active in the popular tourist destination.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggested that pregnant women who are especially worried about exposure to Zika – which has been shown to cause the severe birth defect known as microcephaly – might consider avoiding all of Miami-Dade County.
The new warnings represent a challenge to Florida’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry, with Miami Beach accounting for nearly half of visitors stays in the city, and heighten concerns over Zika’s spread in the continental United States.
In a press conference, Florida Governor Rick Scott said state health officials had identified five cases of Zika believed to be contracted in Miami Beach.
“This means we believe we have a new area where local transmissions are occurring in Miami Beach,” he said, noting that the state had already stepped up pesticide spraying efforts in this area.
The new transmissions come as Miami-Dade continues to battle Zika in the Wynwood arts neighborhood of Miami, the site of the first locally transmitted cases of Zika in the continental United States.
In Miami Beach, the state believes Zika transmission is confined to a 1.5-square-mile area located between 8th and 28th streets in the popular South Beach neighborhood, a popular tourist destination.
In a conference call with reporters on Friday, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said there have been several cases of Zika believed to have been acquired by local mosquitoes in other parts of Miami that do not yet constitute local transmission.
Given that, Frieden said there could be transmissions that have not been identified throughout Miami, which is why the CDC has advised pregnant women and their sexual partners who are worried about potential exposure to consider avoiding travel to Miami all together.
Of the five new cases in Miami Beach, one person is a resident of New York, one person is a resident of Texas and one person is a resident of Taiwan.
“All three of these people traveled to Miami,” Scott said.
Frieden said battling Zika-carrying mosquitoes in this neighborhood will be especially challenging because the area’s high rise buildings will prevent pilots from flying low enough to drop pesticides in aerial spraying campaigns.
“The inability to use aerial spraying there means we’ll be limited to using ground-based techniques like backpack spraying,” he said.
Frieden said aerial spraying continues to be successful in the Wynwood neighborhood, where experts have seen “substantial but not complete knockdowns of mosquito populations.
Scott said Florida has requested more support from the CDC.
LAWMAKERS URGE MORE FUNDING
Reporters pressed Scott on the timeliness of the announcement, which was first reported in the Miami Herald on Thursday and was confirmed by many other news outlets on Thursday, including Reuters.
“We recognize the desire for information quickly, but it is important that we conduct our interviews and investigations pursuant to epidemiological standards,” Scott said.
Reporters at the press conference charged Scott with underplaying Zika transmission and delaying confirmation to minimize the effect on tourism in the state.
Scott said the state was taking every measure to ensure the information they provided to the public was accurate.
“I want to assure everyone that if we identify additional areas of local transmission that we will alert the public and the media immediately,” he said.
U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, said the transmission of Zika in Miami Beach “is the most alarming development yet in the rapidly growing threat of Zika in the United States.”
Reid renewed calls for lawmakers in the House and Senate to return to Washington to authorize funding to help public health officials fight the spread of Zika.
President Barack Obama in February requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika but Congressional efforts to approve part of the funding deadlocked before lawmakers adjourned for the summer.
Earlier on Friday, U.S. health officials published a study estimating that as many as 270 babies in Puerto Rico may be born with the severe birth defect known as microcephaly caused by Zika infections in their mothers during pregnancy.
The condition, in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains, is estimated to cost $10 million over the lifetime of one child.
The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed more than 1,800 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infection in the mothers.