-- A national health advocacy group has accused Fort Lauderdale officials of taking down its billboards promoting condom use to prevent sexual transmission of the Zika virus.
The local chapter of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is based in Los Angeles, alleged that officials from the Fort Lauderdale Mayor's Office and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (GFLCVB) removed its billboards there featuring an illustration of an unfurled condom with the words “Prevents Zika Transmission” and directing viewers to the website useacondom.com.
The billboards were allegedly taken down this week in locations around Fort Lauderdale and near the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport “following several complaints received from officials in the Mayor’s office, the GFLCVB and their advertising agency Starmark,” the foundation said in a news release Wednesday.
“It is outrageous that the Mayor’s Office or the convention and visitors bureau would remove these billboards, which had a public health message that was relevant to both our community and those visiting the area,” Michael Kahane, head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s southern bureau in Fort Lauderdale, said in a statement. “Our officials have acted inappropriately and are jeopardizing the public’s health because of their actions.”
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler denied the accusations in a statement to ABC News Thursday, saying he has “not communicated with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation about its billboard promoting condom use to prevent sexual transmission of the Zika virus.”
“Further, I have not communicated with any billboard company about the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's billboard promoting condom use to prevent sexual transmission of the Zika virus,” Seiler continued. “I suspect that this false accusation and alleged controversy may be part of their marketing campaign.”
In a statement obtained by ABC News later Thursday, Fort Lauderdale's tourism bureau said it had been contacted with concerns about the billboard's imagery and messaging "as it is not 100 percent accurate in advising the public of how to protect themselves from Zika transmission."
"The health and welfare of the visitors and residents of Broward County is our highest priority," Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in the statement. "We reached out to the billboard company to relay these concerns that had been brought to our attention."
Ritter said the billboard company then conveyed these concerns to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF).
"There were a number of options including changing the copy, relocating the billboard and working with the AHF before taking the billboard down. Ultimately, it was the billboard company's decision to take a course of action to remove the billboard," Ritter said.
The Florida Department of Health said Wednesday there are three new non-related cases of Zika in the Sunshine State, bringing the total number of locally-acquired cases to 33. One of the new cases is in Miami-Dade County, where health officials believe active transmission is happening.
Florida health officials also said there were also 12 new travel-related cases as of Wednesday, bringing the total number to 461. One of the new cases is in Broward County, which is home to Fort Lauderdale.
The Florida Health Department has tested more than 3,300 people statewide since late last year when the Zika virus outbreak in South America first raised alarms.
Although the number of cases has continued to increase, experts say this does not necessarily mean the outbreak is getting worse.
"It’s paradoxical. The reasons we’re finding other cases is that the system is working very well," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center told ABC News earlier this week. "Expectations have to be tempered with the reality -- namely this is both a mosquito borne virus and a sexually transmitted virus."
ABC News’ Gillian Mohney contributed to this report.