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Viral cousins


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  • | 11:00 a.m. March 18, 2016
  • Charlotte–Lee–Collier
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Executive Summary
Trend. Zika virus Industry. Tourism Key. Mosquito control is the critical line of defense against the Zika virus.


Sharon Isern and Scott Michael knew Zika virus would show up in the U.S. sooner rather than later.

For the past year, the husband-and-wife team of virologists from Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers has been busy testing an antiviral treatment they developed and patented for dengue virus to determine if it can also be used to treat Zika, a cousin-like virus carried by mosquitoes. The Zika virus has been linked to birth defects and hemorrhagic fever.

“This is a brand new beast and it's knocking on our door,” says Michael. “We knew we'd be seeing it across our borders.”

On Feb. 3, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a public-health emergency in four counties, including Lee and Hillsborough on the Gulf Coast, after the discovery of nine travel-related cases of Zika virus. Since then, there have been 59 cases in Florida. The state recommends that pregnant women or women who are contemplating getting pregnant postpone travel to areas where Zika is present.

Zika virus is likely more widespread in Florida than reported. That's because 80% of those who are infected by Zika virus don't show symptoms, which include fever, rash and joint pain for a week to 10 days. So far, though, there haven't been any cases of transmission by mosquitoes in Florida. Instead, travelers have brought Zika virus from abroad and there has been one case of sexual transmission in Polk County from an individual who traveled outside the country.

Isern and Michael, biology professors at FGCU, have been researching the dengue virus for more than a decade and recognized the Zika virus spreading quickly through the Caribbean. They recommend avoiding travel to the Caribbean or Latin America now: “Mosquito control is not keeping up,” says Isern, who is originally from Puerto Rico.

By contrast, Florida is well equipped to keep Zika virus at bay. “Mosquito control is quite good in Florida,” Isern says. “Right now there is no cure or vaccine. Mosquito control is all we have.”

But it's effective. For example, a dengue outbreak in Key West was quickly snuffed out after Isern and Michael helped identify infected mosquitoes and coordinated with mosquito-control officials to eradicate the virus in the island town.

A treatment or vaccine may still be years away, however. The dengue virus treatment that Isern and Michael have developed hasn't been tested on humans yet. The scientists are working with Ennaid Therapeutics of Alpharetta, Ga., to develop an anti-viral treatment for people.

Complicating matters, there are four types of dengue virus. Catching one type may make catching another type worse. And there's so much similarity with Zika that an accurate diagnostic test is not yet available commercially. “We're not there yet,” says Isern.

Isern and Michael have won grants from the federal government totaling more than $5 million, including a majority from the military because of soldiers' exposure to the dengue virus overseas. “That's what it takes to get the science going,” says Isern.

News of the Zika virus thrust the couple into the spotlight, even as they are on sabbatical working on the diseases. “We tried hiding for a while,” Isern chuckles.

Still, Isern and Michael don't want to sound alarmist. Mosquito-control officials are on the lookout for the Zika virus and the state is calling on experts to contain any outbreak. “The worst thing to do from a business point of view is to deny it,” Isern says. “Then you get a reputation for not being trustworthy.”


Zika: An unwelcome guest
Don't be like the mayor in the movie Jaws.

This advice comes courtesy of Bud Nocera, the former CEO of Visit Florida who is now the president of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce.

In Jaws, the mayor of a beach town tries to quash any news of a shark attack in the prime of the tourism season for fear it would drive away the tourists on the busy Fourth of July weekend. Denial made things worse, of course.

“What that means is that I would always defer to the experts,” Nocera says. “Speak to the people who are extremely knowledgeable. That's true whether it's a viral epidemic or shark attacks or any kind of natural incident.”

Gov. Rick Scott on Feb. 3 signed an executive order that directed Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong to declare a public health emergency in four counties because of the Zika virus, including Lee and Hillsborough counties on the Gulf Coast.

So far, the preemptive order didn't cause a rash of hotel cancellations. But speaking to a gathering of the Chamber of Southwest Florida recently, Tamara Pigott, the executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, says she's heard anecdotal evidence of cancellations. Still, she cautioned that those might be because of a combination of factors, including freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee that darkened the beach waters.

Because of these threatening issues, Lee County tourism officials allocated an additional $125,000 for digital marketing recently. “When our visitors come here they want to be outdoors,” Pigott says.

In particular, Pigott says Europeans are sensitive to virus outbreaks. Germans make up 9% of Lee County's total visitors. “Issues like this they pay a lot of attention to,” she says.
But Americans are concerned, too. “I've gotten a lot of calls from Milwaukee and Minneapolis,” says Jennifer Roth, director of epidemiology and public health preparedness for the Florida Department of Health in Lee County.

Speaking at the chamber event, Roth says she's been referring callers to the state's Zika hotline (855-622-6735). “Locally we were getting a little overwhelmed,” she says.

Santiago Corrada, the president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, says some groups have inquired about the Zika virus, but he says the governor's order didn't affect visitation to Hillsborough County. “We've not seen it scare away anybody,” he says.

The questions the groups had was how widespread the virus is and what precautions visitors should take. On its website, Visit Tampa Bay posted a statement about the limited scope of the virus, the county's aggressive mosquito-control program and advice to use repellent. “We've been very, very engaged,” says Corrada, who says he receives regular updates on the virus.

Corrada says he's not sure if the order will be rescinded anytime soon, even if the Zika virus recedes. “We're still under an Ebola emergency order,” he notes.

 

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