Zika is a threat that Florida hasn't taken seriously, study finds

Aedes Aegypti mosquito in the lab at Pinellas County Mosquito Control. The mosquito carries the Zika virus. Pinellas has the first sexually transmitted case of Zika in Florida for 2017. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Aedes Aegypti mosquito in the lab at Pinellas County Mosquito Control. The mosquito carries the Zika virus. Pinellas has the first sexually transmitted case of Zika in Florida for 2017. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Jun. 13, 2018

Miami was ground zero during the peak of Zika outbreaks in the U.S. in 2016, which made Florida residents more susceptible than others to contracting the virus.

While Floridians were nearly twice as likely as residents in other states to take precautions against the mosquito-borne virus, fewer than half did, according to a new study.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania released the results of the study Wednesday. It examined the response to the Zika outbreak in adults in Florida compared to those living elsewhere in the U.S.

The findings suggest that greater community-level education is needed to trigger a broader response to a public health threat such as Zika, a news release said.

Zika infections pose "unprecedented challenges to public health" as the illness can cause birth defects in infants and is transmitted not only by mosquitoes, but sexually through a partner who is infected.

"People need to understand that by protecting themselves from the virus, they're protecting everyone from the virus," lead author Kenneth M. Winneg and managing director of survey research at APPC said in a statement. "It's not enough to have the people who are most at risk protecting themselves. You need the entire community involved."

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Floridians were generally more informed than others about Zika, the study said, and were twice as a likely to express "at least moderate feelings" of being at risk of infection. Florida residents also were more likely than those from other states to know that Zika doesn't always produce noticeable symptoms, but could cause severe birth defects.

Floridians were twice as likely to say they had taken steps in the past three months to protect themselves from Zika, compared to people from other states.

But 55 percent of Floridians took no preventive action. Even families in Florida who had a member at risk of becoming pregnant did not take any more action to prevent Zika than non-Florida households, the study said.

"Many people may not have expected the symptoms to be personally harmful, and this might have reduced the response to Zika," study co-author Dan Romer and APPC research director said in a statement.

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The study was published in the journal Risk Analysis, and was conducted by researchers at APPC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was based on national surveys of more than 12,000 adults in the U.S., with an oversample of Florida residents, taken from Aug. 8 to Oct. 3, 2016.

The Florida Department of Health reports 47 cases of the mosquito-borne illness so far this year, with no local cases or current active zones. That means there are no known instances of mosquitoes carrying the virus.

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Last year, Florida saw 262 cases of Zika, with two developing locally and 225 travel-related cases. Of those, 136 were pregnant women and three babies were born in the state with congenital Zika syndrome. Compare that to 2016, when there were 1,471 cases of Zika in Florida with 300 local cases, 1,122 travel cases and 299 pregnant women affected by the virus.

As of June, no local inspectors are operating under any "special response" to Zika because there are no reported outbreaks in counties around Tampa Bay.

There's still no vaccine for Zika, nor is there medicine to treat those who are infected, which makes the virus dangerous and contagious, especially to pregnant women. Infants infected with Zika while still in the womb can suffer severe birth defects, including brain damage.

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.