What to Know Before You Go and How to Pack for Prevention
This summer and fall, and beyond, with Zika virus going strong throughout much of Latin America and the Caribbean, many a traveler’s wanderlust comes with a side dish of concern. Vacation hotspots such as Cuba, Baja, Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru are on the CDC’s watchlist due to Zika, and travelers are asking themselves the hard question: should they cancel?
Though the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised that pregnant women do not travel to regions with Zika virus outbreaks, they have issued no travel restrictions and have provided plenty of information on how traveler’s can take pre-cautions to try and avoid Zika infections, and onward transmission that could adversely affect pregnancy and future conception.
The CDC’s primary response to Zika currently remains: enjoy your vacation. If you pack to protect yourself, and take precautions, you and your family can still enjoy a vacation in a country with Zika virus.
This said, the decision to travel should be up to you and your travel partners, and you should do what you're the most comfortable with. Below, we’ve compiled some information to help you stay healthy on the road, wherever it may lead you, and to guide your packing in an effort to avoid infection. For more information, visit the Center for Disease Control and/or the World Health Organization websites (links at bottom).
Can I still travel to Ecuador, Cuba, Mexico, and other countries in South America with Zika?
Countries in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, Cape Verde, the Pacific Islands, and South America have reported cases of Zika—including countries we travel to such as Ecuador, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. However, no travel restrictions have been posted and many tourists and travelers continue to visit these countries.
Efforts are being taken worldwide to mitigate and eradicate the Zika virus in countries suffering from the epidemic. Cuba is taking extreme efforts to eradicate the threat of Zika, and has undergone mandatory fumigation to eliminate mosquitoes—a campaign that has so far seen some success.
The CDC is always updating their travel notices and information here —including their list of countries with endemic Zika.
The good news is that the CDC recently updated their travel warnings to take a region’s elevation into account for Zika virus transmission. Mexico City, Bolivia’s La Paz, Colombia’s Bogota, and Ecuador’s Quito are all capital cities now recognized as low-risk Zika zones.
Are travelers in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa at risk of Zika?
While North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have reported some instances of Zika, these countries are not currently recognized as at high risk. Europe and North America have seen cases of Zika from travelers, but are not recognized as hosts of epidemic Zika.
Similarly, the CDC recognizes Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Asia as sites of endemic Zika, where the risks to travelers are much lower than in countries suffering Zika epidemics.
What are the symptoms of Zika?
Most people infected with Zika experience joint pain, fever, rash, and conjunctivitis (or red eyes)—basically like the flu. Around 80% of infected people don’t show symptoms; rarely are people sick enough to go to the hospital or suffer fatal consequences. Most symptoms can be treated by drinking fluids, plenty of rest, and taking medicine with acetaminophen to reduce pain and fever.
Of primary concern are pregnant women who can be infected with the virus along with her fetus. Zika infection during pregnancy can result in microcephaly, a birth defect, as well as other brain defects.
What are some preventative measures I can take on my trip?
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or treatment against Zika (at least not as of the date of this post), so prevention is what travelers have to work with. At the top of the preventative list is preventing mosquito bites, as mosquitoes are the primary transmitters.
Here are some steps for preventing mosquito bites:
- Apply insect repellents registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and which contain DEET, oil of eucalyptus or lemon, picaridin, or para-menthane-diol. Note: It may be difficult to purchase recommended repellent at your travel destination, so we recommend packing enough to last the entire trip.
- Keep skin covered as much as possible by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Stay in and sleep in screened-in/air-conditioned rooms when possible, or use a mosquito bed net if sleeping outdoors.
- Wear permethrin-treated gear and clothing. These items can be purchased pre-treated (ExOfficio is one company that offers a lot of these types of products), or you can treat them by yourself.
Check out the CDC’s page on avoiding bug bites and the Traveler’s Health Yellow Book for a more detailed breakdown. Prevention against sexual transmission is next up on the list of greatest preventative measures, and you can read more about that below.
Is sexual transmission a risk for Zika?
Zika is no kissing disease, but evidence suggests a risk of sexual transmission for Zika. The CDC’s warnings now extend to men and women alike—pregnant or hoping to be—in terms of taking preventative measures against transmission.
What is the CDC’s stance on pregnancy and Zika?
The CDC currently recommends that pregnant women postpone traveling to regions where Zika virus outbreaks remain ongoing.
For those pregnant women who must travel, or for women hoping to become pregnant, the CDC recommends consulting healthcare providers and strictly adhering to the preventative measures recommended.
Travel insurance may be helpful to cover a trip cancellation or interruption in these cases, and some airlines are offering refunds or travel alterations in order to accommodate customers.
If you have further questions about pregnancy and the Zika virus, check out the CDC’s informational page devoted to the topic with lots of incredible resources and even a podcast. It’s great for mothers-to-be, mothers-hoping-to-be, and of course, fathers.
The main travel takeaway:
If you and your partner are not pregnant or not planning to become pregnant within 6-12 months after traveling, the health risks involved with Zika go way down.
If you’re pregnant, avoid traveling to the impacted countries the CDC lists. If you and your partner are planning to become pregnant, consider postponing non-essential travel and, if you do travel, adhere to the precautions recommended in order to avoid transmission and further risks.
For other travelers, Zika is a threat that can be prevented with the right precautions—like many risks travelers face every day. You and your family have the final say in the travel risks you’re comfortable with and best understand your current stage of life and future plans.
Prepare, take precautions…. But enjoy your adventure!
Here are some other good resources to check out:
The CDC’s Communication Resources: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/comm-resources/index.html
World Health Organization’s Zika Information: http://www.who.int/csr/disease/zika/information-for-travelers/en/
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