Miami residents taking Zika virus threat in stride – USA TODAY

Miami residents taking Zika virus threat in stride – USA TODAY

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MIAMI — Residents of this southern city are well aware that some people infected by the Zika virus have landed in Miami-Dade County.

The virus hasn’t made the jump into the mosquito population yet. But when you live on the edge of the Everglades, a mosquito-filled swamp that covers most of South Florida, people prepare for that threat.

Mario Alejandro Acebal, 60, who lives a few blocks from where suburban Miami turns into swampland, said he already cleared his yard of anything that can hold water and serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes.  He shut off the fountain in his front yard, flipped over his outdoor pots and replaced some damp dirt beside his air conditioner with dry soil, throwing a little bleach on top just in case.

“You have to be worried,” said Acebal, a retired construction worker. “We can’t let an epidemic turn into a pandemic. And to do that, you have to hit it hard right at the beginning.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday the state has three new Zika cases, bringing the total to 12 confirmed cases. All those people had contracted the virus overseas and then arrived in Florida, so there is no evidence that the virus has started spreading here through mosquito bites.

Scott declared a public health emergency in the five counties, including Miami-Dade, where the travelers were diagnosed with the virus. The declaration means officials should watch for new cases and be prepared to respond if the virus spreads.

He said state officials are asking the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least 1,000 testing kits for the virus, because the state has only about 475 on hand.

Lilian Abbo, chief of infection control and prevention at the Miami-based Jackson Health System, said residents should be prepared, but “there is no reason to panic.” She stressed that the virus causes only mild symptoms in adults and children, but pregnant women must be extra careful because the virus has been linked to birth defects in Latin America that cause babies with unusually small heads.

Lillian Rivera, administrator of the Florida Department of Health’s Miami office, said the area is well prepared to respond to the Zika virus, given the region’s history of dealing with the threats of dengue fever, Chikungunya and Ebola. “We have confronted all of those diseases very well,” Rivera said.

South Florida experienced an unusually wet winter this year, leading to concerns about a proliferation of mosquitoes just as the Zika virus was introduced to the area. But cold temperatures and windy conditions have kept the mosquito nuisance to a minimum.

Doyle Kennon, a manager at Coopertown Airboats a few miles into the Everglades from Miami, said tourists and employees have asked about the Zika threat all week. He said that’s led to a few more sales of bug repellent but no widespread panic.

“People are talking about it, but what are there, nine cases so far?” Kennon said, referring to the initial reports earlier this week. “Well, we’ve got 3 million people living here, and it feels like 3 million tourists, so you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery.”

Marina Glovas, 85, a Cuba native who lives near the Everglades, shared the same attitude. She said she has seen viruses come and go. And while she’s making sure her backyard is cleared of sitting water, she said dealing with mosquito-borne illnesses is part of the price of living in paradise.

“If a mosquito bites me, he’ll be the one who gets poisoned,” she said with a laugh.

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