Traveling can be a wonderfully life-changing experience, but it always comes with some risks. Most recently, the Zika virus has emerged as a health risk that has impacted people across the world, causing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue travel advisories for those traveling to and from affected areas. So what does that mean for your travel plans this year? Should you cancel them, or is it still safe to take that trip? While information continues to evolve, here’s the latest on what you need to know about the Zika virus before embarking on your next trip.
Areas with the Zika Virus
Since reports of the Zika virus began in the summer of 2015, there have been incidents of infection in parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, as well as parts of the South Pacific. The CDC and WHO have both reported that the list of countries and territories where Zika virus infections are being actively reported is likely to continue to grow. More than 300 cases of Zika virus infection have been reported in the U.S., and all cases have been acquired through travel to affected areas outside of the U.S. You can view the most up-to-date list of active Zika countries on the CDC website.
What is the Zika Virus?
The Zika virus is a blood-borne disease primarily transmitted to humans when they are bitten by an infected mosquito. When a mosquito feeds, it excretes saliva that prevents blood from clotting. It is the saliva from an infected mosquito that transmits the virus.
Contrary to what it may seem, the Zika virus is not a new disease but has actually been known to health officials for more than 60 years. It was first discovered in Uganda in 1947, but until recently infections had rarely been reported outside of Africa and parts of Asia. Since the first reports in Brazil in May of 2015, there have been more than 1.5 million cases of Zika virus confirmed in that country alone.
Zika Virus Transmission
It is believed that a specific species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti is the primary vector for Zika virus transmission. This species of mosquito is typically found in tropical regions, but it has been found in more temperate climates during warm weather. In fact, parts of Florida, Louisiana and the gulf coast of Texas have seen Aedes aegypti mosquitos in the past. The Aedes aegypti is also known to carry other diseases, such as dengue and yellow fever.
Outside of mosquito-to-human infection, there have been confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission of the Zika virus in at least four countries, including the United States. In all of these cases, the transmission took place through sexual contact where one partner had recently returned from an infection-prone area. In all reported instances, the transmitting partner was male, and scientists are as yet unsure if it is possible for females to transmit the disease to their male partners as well.
Can I catch Zika through sex? It is possible that #ZikaVirus is transmitted via sex. Do you plan to visit areas where #Zika is known to occur? Or is your sexual partner returning from an affected area? If so, practice #safesex (e.g. use #condoms correctly and consistently) or abstain from #sex Learn more from WHO Q&A on Zika and sexual transmission – link on our bio #health #healthadvice #news
A photo posted by World Health Organization (@worldhealthorganization) on
Zika Virus Symptoms
Symptoms of Zika virus infection can be very mild in healthy adults and children. In fact, most people infected with the Zika virus will never know they have the disease.
In cases where the symptoms are felt, they can mimic other tropical infections, such as dengue fever, yellow fever and chikungunya, and are commonly mistaken for those infections.
Usual symptoms include:
- mild fever
- joint pain
- irritated and red eyes
- muscle pain
Symptoms usually manifest 3-12 days after infection, and illness can last for a few days to a week. It can be detected in the blood for this period of time, but usually not much longer. It is suspected that human-to-human transmission must take place during this time.
“For the vast majority of people, Zika is a mild illness and not a cause for panic,” says Adalja Amesh, board certified infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh.
Before taking a trip, Amesh recommends travelers speak with their primary care physicians about the risk of mosquito-born infections in the countries they’re visiting, the protective measures they should take to avoid infection, and what to do if they develop symptoms.
Zika Virus and Pregnancy
Where this mild illness can turn particularly dangerous is when a pregnant woman becomes infected. The Zika virus has been linked to a high incidence of birth defects known as microcephaly in babies born to women infected with the virus. The virus can also cause poorly developed brain structures, eye defects, hearing deficits and impaired growth in infants.
Scientists suspect the virus can attack fetal nerve cells by penetrating the placenta, causing abnormal development of brain cells. Because of this, the CDC has recommended that women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant not travel to areas where Zika is present. If travel to one of these areas is unavoidable, it is recommended that every precaution be taken to prevent any mosquito bites. Any woman who is pregnant and suspects she may have been exposed to the Zika virus should immediately notify health authorities.
Q: Is #Zika a risk if I am pregnant? A: Everyone runs the same risk of getting infected by Zika. Symptoms of #ZikaVirus are generally mild. There is a risk that Zika may cause #microcephaly in your baby. Protect yourself from mosquito bites & see a doctor if you think you have been infected. Read more from our Q&A on Zika virus and #women – link on our bio
A photo posted by World Health Organization (@worldhealthorganization) on
Protecting Yourself from Zika Virus
The best way to protect against Zika virus infection — aside from avoiding travel to areas where it is present — is to prevent mosquito bites. Ways to do this include:
- wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- using an effective mosquito repellent
- sleeping under a mosquito net
- staying clear of areas with standing water
- seeking accommodations where air conditioning and screened windows and doors are available
Mayor @billdeblasio and @nychealthy Commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Basset display one of the easier methods to help prevent the spread of the #zikavirus as they announce a plan to protect New Yorkers from the virus. 📸 @michaeldappleton/Mayoral Photography Office
A photo posted by NYC Mayor’s Office (@nycmayorsoffice) on
Men who are returning from a region where Zika virus is active should take precautions when engaging in sexual intercourse with their partners. Recent guidelines from the CDC for men who have experienced symptoms of Zika virus or who are known to have been infected include abstaining from unprotected sex for at least six months after their symptoms first appeared.
There is currently no vaccine or antiviral medication approved for treating the Zika virus. Development of a vaccine is currently underway, but this process can take years to produce an effective treatment. Aside from women who are pregnant, anyone who is infected with the Zika virus is usually told to simply wait out the symptoms.
What If You Aren’t Feeling Well While Traveling Abroad?
If you’re staying in a Zika-affected area and start to feel achy and feverish, do you get on the next plane home or seek medical care in the country you’re visiting? There are a few things to consider before making that decision.
Do You Speak the Language?
Seeking medical care can be pretty tricky if you don’t speak the language of the country you’re visiting. Before you travel, check with your health insurance company and your embassy to see if they have resources to help you find recommended physicians. Organizations such as the International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) can also advise you on where to seek medical care abroad. There’s often a membership fee — IAMAT membership is free the first year and requires a donation to renew — so you’ll have to weigh the benefits of the cost.
Is Medical Care Covered by Your Health Insurance Plan?
According to Daphne Hendsbee of IAMAT, travelers should expect to pay upfront for medical care they receive abroad unless their insurance company or home country has an agreement with the medical care provider. You should also check what’s covered under your current plan before you travel to see if there are any network restrictions at your destination or if any pre-existing conditions could limit your treatment options.
Jim Krampen, chief revenue officer of travel protection company Seven Corners, Inc., recommends purchasing travel medical insurance to make sure any health emergencies are covered. Cost varies, but these policies typically cover any accident, injury or illness that occurs during your trip. Some also include dental expenses and medical emergency evacuation. Make sure to ask if an Extension of Benefits or Follow Me Home benefit is included in your policy. This benefit would ensure that if you seek medical care abroad, you’re also covered upon return home for up to 180 days.
If you do seek medical care while traveling, be prepared to pay cash in countries where credit cards aren’t accepted, and make sure to keep copies of test results and receipts so you can submit them to your insurer for reimbursement.
Protect Your Travel Plans from Zika Virus
Not sure how comfortable you feel traveling to an affected area? Krampen also recommends adding a Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) policy to your travel insurance when booking your next trip.
“Most travel insurance packages would not cover the Zika virus if you wanted to cancel your trip,” says Krampen. “A CFAR guards you against these unique situations, allowing you to cancel your trip up to 48 hours before departure and receive at least 75% of your trip cost back. Even customers who have purchased regular trip cancellation coverage would lose 100% of their trip cost if they canceled their trip due to the Zika virus.”
According to Krampen, a CFAR policy will add approximately 40% to your total travel insurance cost, so make sure to weigh the benefits before tacking on that additional cost. If you’re interested in learning more, there are many options online, or you can contact your local insurance agent.
Zika Virus Travel Advisory
The CDC has issued advisories regarding travel to Zika virus locations, including many destinations frequently visited by American tourists, including Brazil, Costa Rica, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and other locations. For an up-to-date Zika Virus travel advisory listing, visit the CDC travel page.
Let Knowledge Be Your (Travel) Guide
Only you can decide whether you want to travel to a Zika-affected area. Regardless of where you decide to travel this year, make sure you’re well-informed about your travel destination and what you need to prepare for your trip.
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