There are currently 26 reported cases of the Zika virus in Florida, including one in Osceola County and 10 in Miami-Dade County, which has the highest concentration of cases in the state.
The Florida Department of Health expanded the state’s public health emergency advisory to include Alachua County on Feb. 12, Brevard County on Feb. 17 and Orange County on Feb. 18, marking a total of 10 Florida counties under advisory of the Zika virus, according to a declaration by Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong.
The mosquito-borne virus, for which there is currently no vaccine or treatment, is asymptomatic, and nearly 80 percent of infected people do not display symptoms, said Jon Abramson, chairman of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunizations at the World Health Organization.
Aside from mild symptoms including joint pain and fever, the Zika virus has been linked to birth defects in infants of infected mothers, including microcephaly, an abnormal smallness of the head associated with incomplete brain development.
"This is by far our biggest concern," Abramson said.
In Florida, none of the reported cases has involved pregnant mothers, nor has been associated with individuals acquiring the virus in-state, according to the Florida Department of Health.
UCF’s biggest concern at the moment involves students traveling to affected areas, said Micheal Deichen, director of UCF Student Health Services.
“It is recommended that any women who may be pregnant should defer travel to Zika areas,” Deichen said. “Other persons traveling to such areas should take precautions to reduce the possibility of mosquito bites.”
UCF Health Services advises students wear protective clothing outdoors, effective insect repellants and mosquito nets if camping.
Across North and South America, local transmission of infection has been reported in 26 countries, and the World Health Organization has declared a global state of emergency in response to the outbreak.
Abramson said that the top priority for health organizations at the moment is to control the mosquito population, which will be very difficult.
“Saying you can control the mosquitoes and actually getting it done is two different things,” he said.
The mosquitoes that transmit the virus can live in very small amounts of water, as little as a few drops in a bottle cap, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Local leaders are urging residents to clean storm gutters and drain standing water that might serve as breeding grounds for virus-carrying mosquitoes.
Although one of the earliest cases of Zika in the Western hemisphere dates back to 2014, not a lot of research on the virus was done until the link to microcephaly began to surface, Abramson said.
Between 2015 and January 2016, 4,700 suspected cases of microcephaly were reported in regions of Brazil with a high prevalence of Zika virus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Report.
In response to the findings, the Brazilian Ministry of Health established a task force to investigate further.
“I think Brazil, in many ways, should be congratulated for making the observation it did and noting it,” Abramson said.
On Feb. 8, President Obama announced he will ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus. The money would be allocated to fund mosquito-control programs, find treatment and develop a vaccine.
However, Abramson said it will take months in order to find a vaccine and get it approved through a series of testing phases.
“It’s going to happen a lot faster than normal because of the urgency, but it won’t be a matter of a couple of months,” he said.
Until then, UCF Health Services will continue to work closely with the Florida Department of Health and Orange County to monitor the situation and reduce risk for the UCF community, Deichen said.
“Should mosquitoes in Central Florida carry the Zika virus, the focus will be on reducing the mosquito population and any potential for mosquito bites,” he said.
This article was originally published on Feb. 13.
Daniela Marin is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.