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What Travelers Need to Know About the Zika Virus

By Jamie Beckman
January 25, 2016
Mosquito sign
Schlegelfotos/Dreamstime

With health alerts about the Zika virus popping up in travel destinations all over the world, it's normal to feel skittish about visiting the affected countries. Here's what you need to know about the Zika virus and travel:

What countries have seen Zika virus outbreaks?

So far, 22 areas are experiencing a Zika virus outbreak—some of them tropical vacation destinations: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Samoa, Suriname, Venezuela, and Africa's Cape Verde. It is expected to spread.

How severe is the Zika virus? What happens when you're infected?

Traditionally, the Zika virus, transmitted by mosquito bites, has been a relatively mild disease, with symptoms including muscle aches and fever: "kind of like a bad cold, a bad flu," says Ronald St. John, M.D., MPH, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization and current co-founder of Sitata, a free health- and safety-focused trip-planning app and website.

The horror stories about Zika-associated instances of microcephaly (small head size) in newborns and Guillain-Barré syndrome are alarming but technically rare. The current outbreak's sample size is likely a factor in the numerous reports, Dr. St. John says. "With the introduction of the virus into a new place—the Western Hemisphere—and a rapidly accumulating number of cases, once you get a large number of cases of infectious disease, some of the rare complications start to appear."

If I'm traveling to one of those countries, is it cause to cancel my trip?

Unless you're pregnant, no. However, do take precautions to avoid mosquito bites while you're there, says Dr. St. John. (For the sake of comparison in severity, like Zika, mosquito-transmitted dengue fever is still a risk in tropical and sub-tropical regions, as is the chikungunya virus.)

If you are pregnant, the CDC recommends that you "consider" postponing your trip until after delivery. There is growing scientific evidence that the first trimester is a particularly risky time to become infected with Zika, Dr. St. John says. "Pregnant women, as a minimum, should take heightened measures to avoid mosquito bites in countries where transmission is growing, and if they want to be super-cautious, OK, maybe you shouldn't travel, especially if you're in your first trimester. So that's a precautionary thing—it's not an all-out panic button at this point in time."

OB/GYN Jason James, M.D., medical director at FemCare Ob-Gyn in Miami, takes a harder stance: "Pregnant women should, whenever possible, remain away from any of the countries affected," he says, and recommends that pregnant travelers take their "babymoon" in areas that are not affected. "Travel insurance might be advisable for travel to these areas in the next year or so. Compare the various policies and make sure there are no pregnancy exclusions."

What precautions should I take if I decide to travel to one of the affected areas?

Because the virus is spread mainly through mosquito bites, Dr. St. John recommends using a DEET-based mosquito repellent like OFF! Deep Woods ($7, drugstore.com)—safe for pregnant women—with your sunscreen, and wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants whenever possible. Wear a hat and keep your ankles covered.

To prevent mosquito bites while sleeping, choose a hotel with air-conditioning, so that rooms' windows are shut, or if you're in a non-air-conditioned property, ensure that your room has screens, Dr. St. John says. If your accommodations are basic and have neither A/C nor screens, bring a permethrin-permeated mosquito net with you (from $35, ems.com), or stay in a place that has mosquito nets over the bed.

How can I stay informed about the Zika virus as it relates to travel?

At Budget Travel, we recommend keeping an eye on the travel section of the U.S. State Department's website at Travel.state.gov and relying on reputable updates on the virus from sources such as the CDC, specifically its Travelers' Health advice, and the National Institutes of Health

Another tip from Dr. St. John: “Pay attention to the World Health Organization when they issue travel advice. Because there is something called the International Health Regulations, and countries are obligated to report events that might be of public-health importance at an international level. And then WHO makes an assessment. For example, with the huge Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there was never a reason not to travel to those countries, and WHO stated that. If you were going to go there and be a health-care provider—doctor, nurse, whatnot—on an Ebola treatment center, well, yes, that’s a high risk...but if you were just going to Sierra Leone to do business or even tour, that was not a risk.”

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