Florida Declares Zika Public Health Emergency: What Does That Mean, Exactly?

Florida has declared the virus a public health emergency. (Photo: Corbis)

Florida’s governor has issued a public health emergency in four of the state’s counties after nine residents who had traveled to the Caribbean and Latin America were diagnosed with the Zika virus.

“Although Florida’s current nine Zika cases were travel-related, we have to ensure Florida is prepared and stays ahead of the spread of the Zika virus in our state,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement released Wednesday. “Our Department of Health will continue to be in constant communication with all county health offices, hospitals and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  We know that we must be prepared for the worst even as we hope for the best.”

Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Lee, and Santa Rosa counties are affected by the public health emergency declaration.

Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to brain damage in newborns, has increasingly become a global health concern. In early February, the World Health Organization called the rapid spread of the virus a global health emergency.

Zika first made international headlines in January after it was linked to the nearly 4,000 babies who were born in Brazil in the past year with unusually small heads, an incurable condition known as microcephaly.

Zika is spreading rapidly throughout the Americas and the Caribbean and is expected to reach the United States by late spring or early summer. The World Health Organization recently predicted that the virus will spread to all but two countries in South America, Central America, and North America (including the U.S.), and officials in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Jamaica are urging women to hold off on having children.

The CDC is also urging pregnant women and those who are trying to become pregnant to avoid traveling to any regions affected by the virus.

While Florida’s public health emergency declaration sounds alarming, board-certified infectious-disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health that it’s actually a good thing.

Here’s why: It allows enhanced action to be taken in the four counties under the emergency and focused attention to diminish the population of Aedes mosquitoes, which carry the disease. It also allows the counties to communicate directly with the CDC for help, instead of going through the state department of health. “This will really allow them to make decisions on the ground,” Adalja says.

But why is it being done? Adalja says it’s a preventive measure because Florida has seen cases of dengue fever and the chikungunya virus, which are spread similarly to the Zika virus. The concern with infected returning travelers is that the Aedes mosquito could bite them and pass the virus to others, causing what infectious disease doctors call “local transmission.”

“If there are less mosquitoes to bite returning travelers, you’re less likely to see local transmission in Florida,” Adalja says.

Right now, the potential risk of infection for people in and traveling to Florida — pregnant women included — is the same as it is in any other part of the country, Adalja says, although there is potential for the virus to spread in the state because of its large Aedes mosquito population.

Adalja calls the news “reassuring,” adding that “Florida’s mosquito control is considered the best in the nation.”

Pregnant women with travel plans to Florida don’t have anything to worry about right now, Adalja says, but they should keep a close eye on the news to see if local transmissions occur in the state. If that happens, they may want to reconsider their plans.

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