To Travel or Not to Travel during the Zika Virus Outbreak
April 27, 2016
By now you have heard about the Zika virus that is spreading around the Americas. As a world traveler, it was critical to do my due diligence and learn how my upcoming travels might be affected (I had trips scheduled for Colombia and Guatemala). As a researcher, I felt compelled to learn as much as possible, needing to distinguish the facts (i.e. scientific evidence) that had been jumbled all up in the media frenzy. After delving into the news and research available, I decided there was little reason to cancel my trip. However, I did increase my efforts to be bug bite free. While there is no current (key word) evidence that the Zika virus infection has bearing on future pregnancies, research is ever evolving and I did not want to end up a test subject who had been infected and later tried to have a family >.<.
The Zika outbreak is an issue that should be taken seriously, but I do not think travelers should be discouraged (especially if you are not engaged in family planning or are not currently pregnant). I went on my week long trip to Colombia and I did not emerge with a single bug bite. Neither did my travel companion. This is not to say there were no mosquitos, or more importantly, mosquitos of the Aedes species around (We saw mosquitos, but there's no telling what kind they were). But, because we were informed and took precautions (links to what we used below), we were still able to enjoy our trip. So, to help you make the best decision for you, this post will provide information about the Zika virus, how to prevent bites, and what to do if you become infected. And if you are unaware of how the virus is spread and who it affects, check out the last section of the post.
What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus (ZIKV) is a virus transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitos. These mosquitos are active in the daytime, unlike the more common mosquitos, who feed at dusk and dawn. It has been around since the 1940s, with outbreaks mostly in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa. Since 2015, the outbreak has spread to several countries in South America (e.g. Brazil, Colombia), Central America (e.g. Panama, Guatemala) and the Caribbean (Jamaica, Dominican Republic). Lately, cases have emerged in the United States; however, affected persons were travelers that obtained the virus in other countries. For a full list of the affected countries as noted by the CDC click here.
How can you prevent it?
Don’t get bit by an infected mosquito! This is easier said than done, especially if you are going to an area with the Zika virus outbreak. Here are a few preventative steps you can take:
1. Avoid bathing with scented body washes, wearing scented lotion, and perfume or cologne.
~ Sea To Summit Citronella Wilderness Wash is a great alternative. It has a mild scent and has citronella, which is a notable repellent against mosquitos. This particular product can be used as a body wash and shampoo.
2. Apply insect repellent spray or lotion as directed. Opt for products with SPF. Consider purchasing small sizes that you can carry around, so that you can reapply during the appropriate time frame.
5. Consider how to further eliminate the access mosquitos have to you. You can opt for mosquito bed nets to protect you while sleeping. If you are going to be at the beach, select waterproof repellent bracelets for further protection (See the orange band in the picture? I wore one every day!). The market is endless. But do make purchases in advance, some products are waitlisted due to the increased demand!
What should I do if I get bit in an infected country?
1) Seek health care so that it can be determined if you have the Zika virus (urine and blood tests).
2) Keep applying that bug repellent, lotion, etc. This will help prevent uninfected mosquitos from biting you and transmitting it to other people.
3) Avoid scratching. As with any bite, scratching can lead to breaking of the skin and developing an infection.
4) Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest until the virus subsides.
To travel or not to travel?
I hope that you will be able to make an informed decision about your travel plans. If you decide to continue your travels, be sure to take the necessary precautions. I did and while it was an extra expense, it was well worth it to me. If you want to cancel your travel plans, consult with your airline and lodging to see if you qualify for a refund or a credit allowing you to travel somewhere else.
For those who are unaware of how the virus is spread and who it affects:
How is the Zika virus spread?
The mosquito becomes infected with Zika virus after biting a person already infected with the virus. If an infected mosquito then bites someone else, they can transmit the virus to that person. There is also human to human transmission. A pregnant woman that is infected with Zika virus can spread the virus to her fetus during the pregnancy. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that the Zika virus, after it has cleared from the blood, poses a risk of birth defects for future pregnancies. There is also new evidence noting that the virus can be transmitted through semen. It is unknown how long the virus stays in the semen and over what period of time a man can transmit the virus through sexual contact. Additonally, the virus can be transferred via the blood.
Who does it affect and how??
It is important to know that 80% of infected people have no symptoms. Those who do showcase symptoms of the virus suffer from a fever, headache, rash, aches and/or joint pain, and red eyes. These symptoms can last from a few days to about a week. Although rare, Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is a notable concern. Research is being conducted to determine if having Zika virus increases the chance of getting GBS. GBS is a rare disorder where a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes, paralysis.
While earlier reports warning about the outbreak seemed to only target women, men should be just as cautious about visiting a country with a large Zika outbreak. As mentioned before, the virus has been found in semen. It is advised that men returning from Zika-affected areas to consider abstaining from sex and using condoms until more information becomes available. Women concerned about this could also consider using a diaphragm during sexual intercourse.
Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, as there is believed to be an association between Zika virus infection and microcephaly, an abnormal development issue that leaves babies with small heads, small brains and lifelong medical issues. As a researcher, I can not stress this enough- association does not equal causation. Further research is being conducted to untangle the link. However, considering the impact, pregnant women should consult their health care professional before pursuing travel in any affected areas.