Tourism officials alarmed by new Zika cases in Caribbean, Latin America

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By Franco Ordonez

McClatchy Washington Bureau


MIAMI — With billions of tourism dollars at stake, Caribbean and Central American business and health officials are scrambling to protect an industry under threat from the Zika virus.

The Pan American Health Organization on Monday added Jamaica and Costa Rica to the list of countries in the Western Hemisphere where the Zika virus has been detected as officials warned pregnant women in particular not to travel to the area.

Tourism accounts for nearly 30 percent of Jamaica’s economy and more than 12 percent of Costa Rica’s, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Adding to concerns about the spread of the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to birth defects, health officials in Dallas have reported a case of the virus being transmitted sexually by a person who had recently returned to Texas from Venezuela.

“It’s a concern of everyone,” said Guadalupe Monge, a travel agent with Miami-based Costamar travel agency. “I’d say 100 percent of our customers are asking about Zika. They want to know how bad it is. Is it safe to travel? Can they change their tickets?”

Monge estimates that the agency, which organizes trips and tours throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, has lost about 20 percent of its business as news of Zika has increased.

The timing is terrible, as Carnival season is picking up and spring break season is around the corner. Both draw tens of thousands to the region.

Caribbean public health officials launched a new public awareness and health campaign last week geared toward protecting the region’s $29 billion industry.

“We can never let our guard down where infectious diseases are concerned, and that is particularly so in our tourism-dependent Caribbean region,” Dr. C. James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, said at a news conference in Trinidad and Tobago, another tourist-dependent nation.

While supporting recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that pregnant women postpone trips to infected countries, officials in those countries say others shouldn’t be dissuaded. They advise taking standard precautions to prevent mosquito bites, including using repellant, sleeping inside and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

“Don’t let the mosquito ruin your travel,” the Caribbean Public Health Agency says in a fact sheet on its website.

Tourism is important to economies around the world but especially so in the Caribbean and Central America, where millions depend on the industry for their livelihood.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization reported that a record 26.3 million tourists and 24.5 million cruise ship passengers visited the Caribbean in 2014. They spent $29.2 billion, a record for Caribbean tourism.

Nearly half of the visitors to the Caribbean, almost 13 million, come from the United States.

Zika is also driving fears about the Summer Olympics in Brazil, considered the epicenter of the Zika outbreak. More than 4,000 babies in Brazil have been born with microcephaly, a rare neurological disorder associated with developmental problems that has been linked to the mosquito-borne virus.

Since the first case was discovered in Brazil last May, Zika has been found in 27 countries and territories in the Americas. There have been cases in at least 11 states, including nine in Florida and four in Miami-Dade County.

On Tuesday, health officials in Texas announced they had identified a patient in Dallas who’d contracted Zika through sex. The patient, identified as Patient 1, is the first known case of the virus being transmitted in the United States. Patient 1’s partner, identified as Patient 0, had recently returned to the state from Venezuela. Dallas authorities said Patient 1 had had no other possible exposure to the virus.

“Now that we know Zika virus can be transmitted through sex, this increases our awareness campaign in educating the public about protecting themselves and others,” said Zachary Thompson, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.

Not everyone is convinced that the virus can be transmitted through sexual contact.

Dr. George Sealy Massingill, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at John Peter Smith Health Network in Tarrant County, called the Dallas County sexual transmission a “postulated case.”

“So far, that’s their best guess how this happened,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Tuesday. “It’s hard to go back and say that A caused B.”

But the CDC has endorsed the sexual transmission theory, a possibility that raises new concerns about the potential for rapid spread of a virus that until last May had been virtually unheard-of in the Americas.

The Dallas County health department added using condoms to its list of recommendations for anyone returning from an infected area.

The CDC already recommends that U.S. doctors test newborns who show signs of the Zika virus, especially in states such as Florida, where mosquitoes are a daily nuisance.

©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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