Threat of Encephalitic Virus Diminishes, to Florida's Relief

By Henry Magenheim

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida officials said fears of an outbreak of the St. Louis encephalitic virus appear to have diminished as another week went by without human cases reported.

Health officials said many Floridians with flu-like symptoms have been tested since chickens in eight counties were found to carry the mosquito-borne illness last month. It still was not clear whether the strain is virulent enough to affect humans.

Florida tourism officials and public health officials reported receiving numerous inquiries but no surge in cancellations.

Kingdom Tours of Plains, Pa., issued in late August a broadcast fax about the health alerts to all agents with clients arriving in Florida through Sept. 15. Only six agents requested that their clients be rebooked for a later date, according to Gary Wirth, vice president of customer service at Kingdom Tours.

Florida accounts for 50% of the volume done by Adventure Vacations of Hunt Valley, Md., according to Vickie Singer, executive vice president. As agents book Florida clients, its reservationists are alerting them about measures taken to protect visitors from mosquitoes, she said. The warnings have had no significant effect on bookings, she said. Meanwhile, the operator proceeded to hold a weekend outing in Orlando for the executives of its best-producing agencies, she said.

Another major Florida operator, Travel Impressions of Farmingdale, N.Y., reported "just a few inquiries" from agents but no noticeable cancellations. Walt Disney World alerted Travel Impressions about precautions it was taking to minimize exposure to the mosquitoes, such as closing the water parks earlier, according to Teresa McCaskie, Florida product manager. In turn, the operator notified its reservationists and sales staff, she said, so they were prepared for inquiries. Because no human cases of the illness have occurred and the news media have carried stories on the situation, the operator saw no reason to issue advisories, McCaskie said.

Health alerts remain in force in Orange County (the Orlando area) and Indian River County (the Vero Beach area), and health watches continue in Brevard, Charlotte, Hendry, Lee, Martin and Palm Beach counties. Visitors in those counties going out after dark are advised to "wear clothing which covers as much skin as possible" and to use insect repellent containing DEET on skin or on clothing. Meanwhile, county health officials outside of the eight affected counties are testing weekly for the presence of the disease by placing chickens in different areas.

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