By Julie Steenhuysen and Ransdell Pierson
(Reuters) – U.S. health officials on Monday urged pregnant women to consider putting off nonessential travel to Miami due to the Zika virus even as they lifted a travel warning for one neighborhood. Earlier in the day, Florida’s governor declared the neighborhood of Wynwood Zika-free and invited visitors to return.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention left in place a travel warning issued on Aug. 19 for nearby Miami Beach even as it discontinued one issued on Aug. 1 for Wynwood due to local transmission of the mosquito-borne virus that can cause serious birth defects.
“We want to continue to emphasize to pregnant women that they still should consider postponing non-essential travel for all of Miami-Dade (County). That is still in effect,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.
The CDC’s Wynwood travel warning had been the first time the agency had ever told travelers to stay away from a neighborhood in any U.S. city.
But the agency on Monday recommended that pregnant women and their partners still consider postponing non-essential travel to Wynwood to avoid the risk of infection.
The travel warnings had serious implications for Miami’s lucrative tourism industry. Florida continues to battle a widening outbreak of Zika in trendy Miami Beach.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, told a news conference before the CDC’s action that there had not been any cases of Zika infection in the Wynwood neighborhood in the past 45 days, and declared that “everybody should be coming back here and enjoying themselves.”
“We had an issue, everybody took it seriously, and we solved it,” Scott said.
Scott’s comments followed news on Friday that the Zika transmission zone in Miami Beach, a popular tourist destination, had tripled in size after five new cases of infection were detected.
Wynwood was the first neighborhood in the continental United States with a local outbreak of Zika. U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies.
The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has since confirmed more than 1,800 cases of microcephaly.
The CDC said Wynwood had been considered an area of active Zika virus transmission from June 15 until Sunday. It advised pregnant women who lived in or traveled to the neighborhood during that time to consider getting tested for Zika.
ADVICE FROM CDC CHIEF
CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden urged Miami residents “not to let down their guard.”
“We could see additional cases. People living in or visiting Miami-Dade County, particularly pregnant women, are encouraged to continue to take steps to prevent mosquito bites and to follow guidelines for preventing sexual transmission,” Frieden said in a statement.
Scott called on the U.S. government to approve spending to arrest any future spread of the virus in Florida and elsewhere, including funds for mosquito abatement, education and testing for Zika. A spending bill has been delayed in Congress.
Infectious diseases experts praised the achievement in Wynwood as a demonstration of how rigorous public health efforts can stop an emerging infectious disease threat.
“We have that capacity in this country,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Dr. Amesh Adalja of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said Scott is “rightly touting the major progress in Wynwood in controlling Zika,” adding that he is also trying to lift the stigma on that area where the first local transmission of Zika occurred in a U.S. state.
Adalja said CDC’s prior guidance was that the area was considered “a big enough risk to advise pregnant women (and their partners) to avoid it period; that’s not the case now.”
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said the idea of creating a surgically precise “cordon sanitaire” dividing neighborhoods with Zika transmission and those without “does not follow the science.”
Hotez said given the travel of infected people in and out of infected areas, the outbreak area is likely far larger. Hotez in late July called for a travel ban on all of Miami-Dade County for pregnant women, women who might be pregnant and their partners, who might transmit the virus sexually.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Julie Steenhuysen and Ransdell Pierson; Editing by Dan Grebler and Will Dunham)