The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday confirmed that three people — two of whom are in Miami-Dade County —contracted the mosquito-borne Zika virus while visiting South America.
The virus, which may cause a fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis and could be dangerous for pregnant women or women of childbearing age, is quickly spreading through South America, Central America and the Caribbean, the health department said Tuesday. The two Miami-Dade cases involve people who traveled to Colombia in December; a third case in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is, involves someone who traveled to Venezuela in December.
And the while no cases have been contracted in Florida, officials are still warning everyone to be cautious of the disease, which may be linked to babies born with small, undeveloped brains in Brazil.
“We encourage Florida residents and visitors to protect themselves from all mosquito-borne illnesses by draining standing water; covering their skin with repellent and clothing; covering windows with screens; and other basic precautions included in ‘drain and cover,” the Health Department said.
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The announcement of three confirmed cases comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued travel restrictions for women of childbearing age because of the Zika outbreak. According to the CDC, the disease can cause birth defects.
“Out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women [are] advised to consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing,” the CDC said in a statement.
Among the countries travelers are being warned against going to: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. The disease has also been found in Puerto Rico.
Dr. Aileen Marty, a Florida International University professor and physician who specializes in infectious diseases, said while the mosquitoes in the continental United States do not have the virus “they can acquire it and amplify it.”
“We are not there now, but the reality is it can happen,” she said. “It is spreading like wildfire in some places.”
On Monday, Haitian health officials confirmed that the Zika virus, which was first discovered in Uganda in 1947, was present in the Caribbean country.
The CDC said the virus, which is similar to other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and chikungunya, can be prevented by taking steps to avoid mosquito bites. There is no vaccine to prevent the virus and no medicine to treat Zika.
“The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week,” the CDC said. “Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.”
Marty suggests wearing light-colored clothing, applying repellent and avoiding drinking beer outside. Beer attracts mosquitoes, she said.
She said the biggest concern about the virus is for woman of childbearing age because research has shown a link between the disease and an increase in babies being born with microcephaly, a condition in which children are born with damaged, smaller than normal brains.
Earlier this year, the Hawaii Department of Health issued a statement that the CDC confirmed that the Zika virus was found in a baby recently born with microcephaly on Oahu, the island that’s home to Honolulu.
“The mother likely had Zika infection when she was residing abroad in May 2015,” the statement said. “Neither the baby nor the mother are infectious, and there was never a risk of transmission in Hawaii.”