By Caribbean News Now contributor
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- On Friday, Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla declared a public health emergency because of the zika virus, a government statement said.
Trinidad and Tobago declared a similar national health emergency on January 29 and on February 1 the World Health Organisation announced that the “explosive spread” of the zika virus in the Americas represented an international public health emergency.
The WHO has reported 267 separate zika outbreaks in the Americas, with Brazil reporting the greatest number of zika infections at more than one million. Colombia has more than 20,000, the WHO said.
Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla
In Puerto Rico, health officials have confirmed 22 cases, including a pregnant woman and a man with zika who developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, a separate government statement said. Guillain-Barre is a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the nerves.
While the symptoms of the disease for most people are only rash, fever and flu-like effects, catching it during pregnancy can result in the birth of child with microcephaly, a serious birth defect that results in an abnormally small head and brain.
Zika was previously thought to be transmitted only by mosquitoes, but cases have now also included blood transfusion and sexual intercourse with an infected person.
The virus is having an impact on tourism in Puerto Rico, with some tourist groups cancelling reservations, particularly weddings in hotels on the Caribbean island. There were no reports of conventions being cancelled, the statement said.
The Virgin Islands, Barbados and Jamaica in the Caribbean are most vulnerable because they rely on tourism to support their economies, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council.
For example, the Virgin Islands welcome nearly one million tourists each year, supporting roughly 30 percent of jobs on the islands. Most at risk are the British Virgin Islands, where visitors support about 86 percent of economic activity in the territory.
The US Virgin Islands, by comparison, is less exposed to a downturn in tourism because it accounts for 30 percent of GDP.
In Barbados, tourism contributes 37 percent of economic activity and supports more than a third of jobs on the island. The statistics are similar in Jamaica, where about 28 percent of the economy is tied to tourism.