The last time Gov. Rick Scott warned Floridians about the potential threat of the mosquito-borne virus was in July, when he urged residents to still be vigilant against bug bites and standing water. At the time, doctors and researchers were bracing for what was supposed to be another active summer season for the virus. Some expected it to be even worse than last year, when 1,100 travel-related cases were reported statewide and Zika spread into pockets of South Florida.
But it’s been quiet on the outbreak front ever since, as Zika cases have dropped dramatically this year.
The Florida Health Department counts only 180 Zika infections in the state so far in 2017, on track to come in well below the 1,456 cases reported all of last year. The vast majority are travel-related cases brought to Florida by people who came from somewhere else, like Zika hotbed areas in Central and South America or the Caribbean, already infected with the virus. The rest, about 40, were cases where officials could not determine exactly where the patients contracted the virus or instances where people acquired it locally last year but weren’t tested until 2017.
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Officials say they have determined one thing for sure: This year, there are no reported areas in Florida with active, ongoing local transmission of Zika, which means no known instances of mosquitoes carrying the virus.
Another piece of good news is that the number of pregnant women with the virus appears to be declining. With only 101 cases reported so far this year, it would be difficult to match last year’s total of 299 cases.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting just 254 cases of Zika, down dramatically from the 5,000-plus cases the agency tracked last year, said Ben Beard, a deputy incident manager from the CDC Zika response team.
“Zika spread so quickly last year because we were so naive to this virus. We’d never seen it here before,” Beard said. “The epidemic has died down in Latin America, and people have been proactive in warmer weather communities in the U.S. like Florida, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, where the mosquito populations are greater.”
But researchers say this doesn’t mean Floridians should let down their guard. There’s still no vaccine for Zika, nor is there a medicine to treat those who are infected, said Dr. Beata Casanas, an infectious disease expert and associate professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.
In addition, most federal funding for Zika research ran out earlier this year, and future funding is unclear.
“So far we’ve been very lucky,” Casanas said. “There have been no new or current cases, even after the hurricane, when we anticipated more mosquitoes because of flooding.”
In the Tampa Bay area, local mosquito control agencies activated Zika hotlines and added more frequent routes to keep mosquito populations under control, especially during the rainy summer months. County level mosquito control and health department groups have been hosting community events to spread Zika awareness and offer prevention tips.
Most preparedness tips boil down to applying bug spray and dumping standing water from flower pots after a storm. County agencies work closely with the Florida Department of Health and offer free Zika testing for pregnant women.
“It’s not the large bodies of water that you have to worry about, like rivers overflowing after the hurricane,” Casanas said. “It’s the small containers, like flower pots, where mosquitoes tend to breed. It’s the small places we don’t often think about.”
Signs about the Zika virus are still present in airports and tourist destinations, warning Americans not to travel to countries where outbreaks are still being reported.
“Pregnant women, or women who want to become pregnant, and their spouses are still strongly urged not to go where Zika is prevalent,” Casanas said. “We have several studies underway for treatment and vaccinations for Zika and hopefully we'll be successful. Meanwhile we’re trying to reduce the barriers for Zika testing and screening.”
In addition to mosquito bites, Zika also can be transmitted sexually through a partner who is infected.
A CDC analysis found the risk to pregnant women is much greater than researchers initially thought. One in 10 pregnant women with confirmed Zika infections in the United States last year had a baby or fetus with serious birth defects.
Screenings for Zika are free for pregnant women through their private health care provider or the local department of health office, but Casanas hopes that screenings will be free for everyone soon.
“For women who are pregnant or want to become pregnant, it is so important that their partner is tested too,” she said. “We’re finding that the virus can live longer in men’s semen, which is why we say that men should abstain from sex if infected for up to six months. But we’re finding that it may even need to be longer.”
Noting that travel is the factor that most affects the number of Zika cases in the United States, Casanas said she’s surprised at how many people still seem willing to go to destinations where the virus is present.
“The U.S. has more resources than these countries in Central and South America. They don’t have the same infrastructure we do to fight against it,” Casanas said. “All we can do is continue to educate the public and hope they don’t take the risk. Unfortunately many still choose to.”
Zika isn’t going away, warned Beard from the CDC, and he urged Americans not to get complacent now that the numbers are lower.
“It’s still circulating through Latin America and being transmitted locally in Mexico, which is very close to home,” he said. “I’d like to say that next year we'll see even less cases, but we don’t know that because the virus isn’t gone. Prevention is the only way.”