MANATEE -- Manatee County health officials called for calm Monday in the wake of the World Health Organization's announcement that the mosquito-borne Zika fever, which may be responsible for babies born with underdeveloped brains in Brazil, poses a global public health emergency.
"There are no locally-acquired cases of Zika in Manatee or anywhere else in Florida," Adam DuBois, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, said Monday. "We have to think of Zika like some of the other mosquito-borne viruses that we have here in Florida that have been brought in due to people traveling and returning home carrying the virus."
The World Health Organization, also known as WHO, reported that possible links of Zika virus to neurological syndromes that can cause paralysis changed Zika from "a mild threat to one of alarming proportions."
The infection has been linked to cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains, according to WHO.
Because of concern over the devestating affects, research and aid will be fast-tracked to tackle the infection.
WHO director general, Margaret Chan called Zika an "extraordinary event" that needed a coordinated response. There have been around 4,000 reported cases of microcephaly in Brazil alone since October, which has left babies with smaller brains, WHO reported.
"Zika is not transmitted person to person," DuBois said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel alert for more than 20 countries including Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. The virus also has been found in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Although there are three travel-associated cases of Zika in Florida, there are none in Manatee County, DuBois said.
Of the three Florida cases two are Miami-Dade County residents who traveled to Colombia in December and the third case is a Hillsborough resident who traveled to Venezuela in December, according to the Florida Department of Health's Tallahassee Communications Office.
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that "outbreaks of Zika in the continental U.S. will likely be limited."
While the mosquito that carries the virus, Aedes aegypti, is found in the United States, Schuchat said several factors in the US reduce risk: U.S. urban areas are less densely populated, air-conditioning is more widespread and mosquito control efforts are generally stronger.
Since 2015, 31 travel-associated Zika cases have been detected in 11 U.S. states, Schuchat said.
"We are very aggressive when it comes to mosquito control," said Beth Ranson, of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. The district has been working with Oxitec, a biotech company, on developing a genetically modified male mosquito to mate with female mosquitoes, which would produce offspring that won't make it to adulthood. The company has said trials conducted in Brazil have reduced the Aedes aegypti population by 90 percent. The Food and Drug Administration is examining the proposal.
If someone returns from traveling with the virus and gets bit by a Manatee mosquito during the time they are viremic, or possessing high levels of the virus, they can pass the disease, said Christopher Lesser, assistant director of the Manatee County Mosquito Control District.
"We will have cases of Zika here," Lesser said. "But the cases will likely come by way of people who have traveled to a foreign country. Will the disease become an epidemic in Manatee County, most likely not."
"Will we see pregnant mothers getting sick? The answer is most likely not," Lesser added.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond. Miami Herald reporting contributed to this story.