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Is Zika an economic threat to Florida's tourism boom?

Ignoring the potential threat of the Zika virus to Florida's economy, especially as the humid summer takes hold, is hardly a smart option.

Mosquitoes carrying Zika are expected to begin infecting Americans within the U.S. in the next month or so, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday, as officials race to prevent a widespread outbreak of the virus that is believed linked to birth defects.

More than 500 Americans have the Zika disease, mostly acquired during travel outside the country. But experts see a next phase coming when people in the United States with Zika will be bitten by mosquitoes that, in turn, will spread the virus more quickly.

Florida seems in harm's way. It's a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean where Zika already is spreading. And the Sunshine State is nothing if not friendly to the mosquito, especially in the hot summer months.

Is Zika an economic threat to the state, particularly to its booming tourism industry, which is breaking records left and right?

The Tampa Bay Times asked Purdue University professor John Wensveen, who heads the School of Aviation & Transportation Technology (and who happens to own a home in the Florida Keys) of the possible danger ahead. The remarks are edited for length and clarity.

How vulnerable is Florida to Zika?

Given Florida's geographic location and climate conditions, there is concern for increased transmission of the virus due to airline connectivity to infected countries as well as maritime ports where cruise lines also service infected countries. Florida's connectivity with San Juan, Puerto Rico, is of special concern given the number of reported Zika cases.

The risk of infection during air travel is very low and there have not been any documented cases of passengers being infected with Zika virus as a result of travel. Aircraft do not provide friendly environments for adult mosquitoes that carry the virus.

If Zika should become more prominent in this state, at what point will we see "stay away from Florida" messaging appear?

Every precaution is being taken to combat the spread of the Zika virus including the monitoring of the mosquito population and airports throughout the state have implemented enhanced mosquito spraying programs. Florida is experiencing record tourism and the Zika threat has not seemed to negatively impact this so far. Foreign visitors to Florida come, in order, from Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil. This is concerning because the bulk of Zika virus reports come out of Brazil and Florida experienced 1.48 million tourists from Brazil in 2015. Of greater concern is the volume of travel that will occur between Florida and Brazil as a result of the 2016 Olympic Games. In my professional opinion, I do not believe the traveling public will start receiving "stay away from Florida" messages.

Is the country taking appropriate action at this point?

For the most part, yes. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control are not implementing additional screening procedures for travelers mainly because symptoms are not detectable. Airlines have not been told to do anything extra in terms of disinfecting aircraft but do follow guidelines from countries that do require disinfection. It is expected that policies and guidelines may change as more information is revealed about the Zika virus. The 2014 Ebola outbreak caused greater concern for the global airline industry than what we are dealing with now.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

Is Zika an economic threat to Florida's tourism boom? 05/24/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2016 7:27pm]
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