Health and Science

Puerto Rico tourism chief pushes back on Zika virus warnings

Are Zika fears overblown?
Are Zika fears overblown?

The CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association on Thursday challenged warnings by the U.S. government that Zika virus infection could spread widely throughout the island.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects the Zika virus could infect a quarter of Puerto Rico's 3.5 million residents by the end of this year. The U.S. government on Friday declared a public health emergency on the island.

But PRHTA Chief Executive Clarisa Jimenez said the CDC forecast does not reflect what is happening on the ground, and the warnings have contributed to a drop in tourism.

"From the very beginning the numbers that were given were based on projections. The reality is that as of today, less than half of 1 percent of the population has the virus," she told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday.

The United States declared the state of emergency as the number of cases of Zika virus infection in Puerto Rico reached 10,690 since the first instance was found December, The Associated Press reported.

In setting its estimate for Zika infections, CDC officials have cited the example of a 2014 outbreak of chikungunya, which is spread by the same mosquito that carries Zika. The outbreak eventually affected about 25 percent of Puerto Ricans between May and October of that year.

Jimenez argued that Zika has not spread as quickly in Puerto Rico as chikungunya did. She credited action taken by the central government, municipalities and private businesses to halt the spread of the mosquitoes and educate residents and visitors about prevention.

To be sure, the CDC estimates 80 percent of people infected with Zika do not show symptoms. Jimenez said the virus is easily avoided by taking simple measures like spraying with repellent and wearing proper clothing.

She acknowledged it is reasonable for pregnant women or couples trying to have children to avoid places with documented cases of Zika, which has been linked to microcephaly and a number of other birth defects.

The CDC did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

The agency's director, Tom Frieden, on Thursday told NBC News the CDC is not overstating the Zika threat in Puerto Rico

"Unfortunately when babies start to be born with microcephaly, that will change perceptions," he told NBC.

"We projected, based on our chikingunya experience, that Zika might infect a quarter of the population in the first year (in Puerto Rico) and it is very much on track to do that."