Puerto Rico declares Zika epidemic over

World Today

This month, Puerto Rico declared its Zika epidemic over.

Last year, the U.S. territory was the epicenter of North American Zika infections, with the local government reporting more than 40,000 confirmed cases.

Now, the island is looking forward to a new tourism season, even with a U.S. federal health warning still in effect.

CGTN’s Nitza Soledad Perez reports from San Juan.

Puerto Rican authorities said transmission of the virus has fallen to relatively low levels.

“Compared with 2016, we are having less than 10 cases in a four weeks period compared to this same period in 2016, where we used to have 400 to 500 cases for a four week period,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Carmen Deseda said.

This is a relief for an island economy that depends on tourists. Fear of Zika threat drive them away. San Juan launched a marketing campaign featuring one of Puerto Rico’s Broadway legends, Chita Rivera, to help entice them back.

Pregnant women were advised not to come to the island. The virus can cause serious birth defects, like microcephaly, a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than normal, as well as other developmental problems. It frightened travelers away.

“The economy was impacted. We lost about $254 million in revenue that could have come to the island. Those travelers that wanted to visit us,” Puerto Rico Tourism Company Chief Marketing Officer Carla Campos said.

But for a territory that had 40,000 confirmed cases of Zika infection, reporting only 38 Zika-related birth defects had some local experts questioning the data and projections, and wondering if it was also part of the tourism strategy.

Health officials stand by their figures.

In the continental U.S., five percent of pregnant women diagnosed with Zika infections give birth to babies with congenital defects. In Puerto Rico, it’s only one percent. But the island isn’t alone. Brazil also saw fewer Zika-related birth defects than expected.

The Centers for Disease Control refused to discuss Puerto Rico’s situation, but said “We were pleased to see the new cases decrease, that the epidemic wave that peaked last summer and fall is over.”

Though the travel warning for pregnant women continues, local health officials say it’s safe for tourists to return. The enchanted island, Puerto Rico’s official nickname, says it’s preparing to receive 150-thousand additional visitors this coming year.