Health

Zika: more Florida cases, Obama addresses Puerto Rico

Obama tells Puerto Rico to take zika crisis seriously, while Florida authorities announce 10 more locally transmitted cases.

Fourteen cases of Zika in South Florida probably came from local mosquito bites, Florida health officials announced Monday. These are the first cases of Zika likely transmitted by mosquitoes on the U.S. mainland, adding a new dimension to the little-understood virus that has plagued the Americas over the past year.

Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Monday that no mosquitoes in the state had tested positive yet for Zika, but that 14 people in Miami-Dade and Broward counties likely contracted the virus through mosquito bites. Health officials believe the infections occurred in a small area just north of downtown Miami. Scott has called upon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assist the Florida Department of Health and other partners.

“If you live in this area and want to be tested, I urge you to contact the county health department,” Scott said.

Meanwhile, Presidernt Barack Obama gave a short video address saying the zika outbreak is soemthing "everyone in Puerto Rico needs to be taking seriously."

Obama's message acknowledged the virus had spread throughout the island, poses a serious threat to pregnant women.

"We need everybody to take action," he said, stating that it can't just be up to pregnant women to "stop this disease."

Zika primarily spreads through bites from tropical mosquitoes, but can also be transmitted by sex with an infected person. In most people, the virus causes only mild illness, but infection during pregnancy can lead to severe brain-related birth defects for the fetus. That’s a first -- never before has a virus spread by mosquito caused birth defects in humans.

Since last year, the virus has spread through dozens of countries in Latin America, reaching a pandemic level. It has caused hundreds of babies to be born with microcephaly. Brazil has been the hardest hit, with some 100,000 overall cases, and 7,000 in pregnant women. Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica have advised women to postpone getting pregnant until more is known about risks.

In recent weeks, Puerto Rico has seen a rapid increase in Zika infections, causing officials this week to urge “urgent action.”

As of July 7, Zika has been diagnosed in 5,582 people in Puerto Rico, including 672 pregnant women, according to a new report published Friday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Positive tests for people with suspected Zika virus infection have increased from 14 percent in February to 64 percent in June.

“Puerto Rico is in the midst of a Zika epidemic,” said Lyle R. Peterson, a doctor from the CDC. “This could lead to hundreds of infants being born with microcephaly or other birth defects in the coming year.”

In Colombia, health ministers did have a glimmer of good news to share Monday: After amassing nearly 100,000 Zika cases, the epidemic in the country is over, marking the beginning of an “endemic period,” they announced.

“We are absolutely certain that Zika is on the decrease in Colombia,” said Colombian Vice-minister of Health Fernando Ruiz.

The effectiveness of Colombia’s approaches with testing and pregnancy delay policies are currently being studied. So far, 21 babies in Colombia have been born with microcephaly, though that number is expected to increase in September and October.

The virus in Colombia could be in an "inter-epidemic period," researchers warned, which means cases could resurge.

Officials are also looking into the high incidence of Zika-linked microcephaly cases in northeastern Brazil. Though much of Brazil has reported Zika virus infections, some 90% of Brazil's 1,709 Zika-linked microcephaly cases have been reported from there. Experts told the journal Nature that possible contributors could include environmental, socioeconomic, or biological factors.

More than 1,650 Zika infections have been reported in the U.S. Until now, they were all linked to travel outside of the country.

On Friday, the CDC and Florida Department of Health recommend that people in affected areas -- especially pregnant women -- put together a "Zika prevention kit," which includes a bed net, standing water treatment tabs, insect repellent, Permethrin spray and condoms.