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Fear of Zika impacts daily life, travel in U.S., Latin America

Colombia has more than 20,500 cases of Zika infection so far, and more than 4,000 babies in Brazil have been born with microcephaly.
Alice Vitoria Gomes Bezerra, 3-months-old, who has microcephaly, is held by her mother Nadja Cristina Gomes Bezerra on Jan. 31, 2016 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty)
Alice Vitoria Gomes Bezerra, 3-months-old, who has microcephaly, is held by her mother Nadja Cristina Gomes Bezerra on Jan. 31, 2016 in Recife, Brazil.

MIAMI, FL — After hearing the recent news that Colombia confirmed three deaths of patients infected with the Zika virus, Maritza Doria said she's terrified of her upcoming business trip to her home country. Colombia has over 20,500 cases of Zika infection so far.

"If I could avoid the trip, I would. But I will be fined a penalty," said Doria, who leaves in less than 10 days for the city of Popayán, which has a warm, humid climate — ideal for mosquitoes.

With her mind swirling with scenarios of being quarantined upon her return to Miami, she said she was stressed and not sure where to go for information.

She's not alone in her fears. The owner of Keka's Travel Agency in Miami, which specializes in travel to Central and South America, said 20 percent of the trips they booked have been canceled.

"They are canceling because they are afraid of becoming infected," said owner Maria Angelica Morales.

One of the countries travelers are canceling trips to is Brazil, which is considered the epicenter of the Zika outbreak. Over 4,000 babies in Brazil have been born with microcephaly — a rare neurological disorder where babies are born with small heads and underdeveloped brains. This puts many pregnant women on edge.

"To be pregnant at this time, when all you hear in the news is the Zika virus, is truly frightening," said Juliana Aivazoglou Ebina, a 30-year-old resident of Sao Paolo, who is 8 months pregnant with her first child.

Brazilian officials are even warning pregnant women to think twice before giving a kiss, especially to strangers.

Aivazoglou, who works in marketing, said she sprays herself with repellent constantly and fumigates the surroundings of her house on a daily basis.

Cheryl Thompson, an American from Texas who has been living in Sao Paolo for 7 years, is four months pregnant with her second child. "It's definitely nerve racking," she told NBC News. She has even heard of pregnant women who have temporarily moved to other countries.

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To reduce the anxiety, Thompson sprays repellent, wears long sleeves and minimizes the amount of time she spends outdoors. That means eating lunch at her desk while at work, relying on her husband to take their son to the park and changing her exercise habits.

"Work, my house and my car are my safe zones," she said.

Not everyone is fearful of visiting Central and South America. Miami's Mena Travel Agency, which sells tickets and tour packages, has not seen a drop in ticket sales to Latin America — even as the popular Carnival season approaches.

Some people have expressed concern. A group that booked tickets to the Dominican Republic for a wedding called the agency last week worried about news of the Zika outbreak. "We can't advise someone to cancel their trip," Eddie de Mena of Mena Travel said.

Maria Matus, a Miami resident, made sure to pack insect repellent in preparation for her 4-day trip to her native Nicaragua, which has 29 confirmed Zika cases. Three of those are pregnant women.

"I am afraid, so I'm going to spray mosquito repellent from head to toe while I'm there," Matus said.

Maths, 48, left on Thursday to assist a mass for the one-year anniversary of her mother's death. Though she said she is not of childbearing age, she doesn't want to contract the virus while she's away and bring it to Miami.

The U.S. already has 33 confirmed cases - 12 of which are in Florida, considered "ground zero" in the U.S. for the virus since mosquitoes are prevalent all year-round in some areas. All 12 cases are travel related.

Florida Gov. Rick Scot declared a public health emergency on Wednesday in the affected counties.

Anaís Rodríguez, who lives in Miami and is 2 months pregnant, said she's taking a lot of precautions. She wears pants and sweaters or long-sleeved shirts every day, even when it's 80 degrees outside.

Last week, she found a mosquito in her bathroom and didn't waste time killing it. "I put a plug in the bathtub drain in case any mosquitoes are able to breed in the water that is there," Rodriguez said.

Rodríguez said she's terrified of the late spring and summer months when it's hot, humid, and mosquito bites are almost inevitable.

"I'm happy that I'm pregnant, but at the same time I'm nervous because you never know when a mosquito can bite you."

-- Carmen Sesin

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