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Zika Virus Impacting More Than Public Health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may revisit its travel guidance on south Florida as soon as early next week, if there are no new cases involving local transmission of the Zika virus in the region; however, local businesses continue to be impacted.

Updated 9/19/2016 at 9:45 AM EST.

Health advocates and officials at the local and national levels are ramping up efforts to push the US Congress to pass legislation funding the fight against Zika virus.

On September 15, small business owners in the Wynwood district of Miami joined officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and executives from the US Travel Association (USTA), an advocacy and advisory organization for the hospitality industry, on a conference call hosted by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to outline for the media the impact of the mosquito-borne virus on the tourism industry in south Florida.

According to the USTA, tourism brings some $89 billion to the Florida economy annually. Since early August, the CDC has advised pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant to avoid unnecessary travel to the Miami area due to concerns over local transmission of Zika virus.

“Unfortunately, we are in the midst of a very challenging outbreak,” Anne Schuchat, MD, CDC principal deputy director said on the call. “Authorities in Florida are working very hard to address local transmission, and the aggressive response has included the travel advisory, which is unusual” for the continental United States, she admitted.

President Obama recommended $1.9 billion in extra funding to fight the Zika virus earlier this year; however, Congress has yet to approve legislation providing for it. Roger Dow, president and CEO of the USTA, said that his organization has sent two letters to Congress urging legislators to approve funding. “Even though the virus effects a small area and a relatively small demographic, perceptions of the disease could cause lasting damage,” he said on the call. “It’s easy to see Americans and people all over the world watching the news on TV and deciding not to travel to Florida. This is not a partisan issue. We urge Congress to act so that the perception does not get out of hand.”

There’s some good news, at least in the short term: on the call, Dr. Schuchat noted that the CDC may revisit its travel guidance on south Florida as soon as early next week, if there are no new cases involving local transmission of the Zika virus in the region. For now, though, the CDC’s Emergency Response Team continues to assist Florida and Miami-Dade County health officials in efforts to control the Zika-carrying mosquito population and educate the public in preventative measures.

To date, Dr. Schuchat said, there have been more than 20,000 confirmed cases of Zika virus infection reported in US states and territories; of these, more than 3,000 have been identified in the 50 states and Washington, DC. In all, more than 730 cases have occurred in pregnant women, and there have been 25 cases of “adverse birth outcomes,” according to Dr. Schuchat, including birth defects and “birth losses” (ie, death).

At present, Florida is the only state that has confirmed local transmission of the virus via the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Most of the nearly 80 locally transmitted cases thus far reported in the state have been concentrated in the Miami area, with many specifically identified in the Wynwood neighborhood. Owen Bale, director of the R House Restaurant, which opened in the neighborhood in January 2014, told the media on the call that he had been running a very successful restaurant and that customers “told us it was almost impossible to get a reservation” prior to the CDC’s travel advisory, but that “Zika brought an end to that.” He said his revenues have declined 75% since the advisory, and that he has had to lay off one quarter of his staff, with those remaining taking reduced salaries. He urged Congress to include “emergency funding for small businesses” in any Zika-related legislation, although it’s unknown how much of the $1.9 billion proposed by President Obama included monies for affected business owners.

“The worry about the virus has hung like a cloud over the neighborhood,” added Adi Kafri, owner of NOA Catering, which also runs a restaurant in the area. Kafri added that she has had close her outside seating due to concerns over the Zika virus. Although they emphasized that they supported the CDC’s decision to institute the travel advisory, both she and Bale said they had spent significantly to fumigate their facilities and provide repellent to customers.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.