Last month, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health emergency. It has been diagnosed in 153 people in the United States since January. The disease, passed by infected mosquitoes, causes fever, joint pain, rashes, and red eyes. It's rarely deadly but, if contracted during pregnancy, can lead to a slew of infant deformities, like microcephaly, in which the baby's head is much smaller than expected.
With 42 cases diagnosed since January, Florida leads the nation in Zika cases by a lot (New York, with 23 cases, has the second-highest count). So far, the disease has been contracted only by people who were out of the country. But PETA is now warning Floridians of a unique vulnerability: monkey facilities in Hendry County, just west of Fort Myers.
According to PETA, monkey facilities, like Primate Products Inc. in Hendry County, house monkeys in outdoor cages surrounded by swamp and standing water — the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Only primates (including humans and monkeys) can contract Zika. With thousands of monkeys on the Hendry County property, PETA sent a letter earlier this month to the Florida State Surgeon General warning of the threat, stating that nearby residents are at risk.
"Zika cases have already been confirmed in counties bordering Hendry County and its squalid monkey prisons," PETA Director of Laboratory Investigations Justin Goodman said in a statement. "PETA is calling on Florida residents to join us in calling for the closure of these despicable facilities, which are as dangerous to human health as they are cruel to monkeys."
Primate Product's Dr. Thomas Roswell explained that precautions are in place to prevent the spread of infection — like a 31-day quarantine when monkeys first arrive on the property and safety equipment for employees. Health officials have also said that mosquitoes bite only humans, not monkeys, and that the mosquito that carries the virus can fly only a quarter of a mile.
In a statement sent to New Times Roswell said: "Based on the research available, any animal that enters quarantine with a Zika virus infection or is exposed to Zika virus should have cleared the infection by the end of the quarantine period. Therefore, there should be no risk of infecting local mosquito populations from imported animals."
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But PETA insists the threat is real. The group has started a campaign to educate Florida residents of "The Zika Threat: On Our Doorstep." Thousands of door hangers have been sent to residents' homes, and a billboard and ads are being published. The Caloosa Belle, a newspaper in LaBelle Florida, published the ad yesterday. PETA reports that more ads will follow in Tallahassee, Fort Myers, and Naples.
PETA and other animal-rights activists have been protesting these facilities for years, calling them inhumane and squalid. But with the threat of the Zika virus looming among primates, PETA hopes to incite enough fear to finally shut these facilities down for good.