Updated April 2016
Rising reports of the Zika virus may have some travelers rethinking their travel plans. So far, it’s spread to roughly 30 countries and regions, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean — including popular tourist spots like Jamaica, Costa Rica, Brazil and Mexico. This has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue travel alerts for destinations with outbreaks and the World Health Organization to declare Zika an international public health emergency. But don’t panic and make that cancellation call just yet. Here are a few things to know about the virus:
1. The most serious risk is for pregnant women.
The Zika virus is mainly spread by mosquitos, though there have been recent reports of a few cases where it’s been transmitted through a blood infusion or sex. As you may have heard, the most at-risk group is pregnant women, who should be extra cautious since Zika has been linked to serious birth defects like microcephaly — which results in newborns having abnormally small heads and often underdeveloped brains — and other poor pregnancy outcomes. Until we know more, the CDC recommends pregnant women consider postponing travels to areas with Zika outbreaks. Zika is also linked to premature birth, eye problems, and other neurological problems for babies whose mothers were infected with the disease.
2. For mostly everyone else, the virus is quite mild.
In fact, about 80 percent of people with the virus don’t even have any symptoms — so you may not even realize you’re infected. If Zika makes you ill, it’s likely to be mild with symptoms like a fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. The symptoms last for several days to a week, but it’s uncommon to be hospitalized because of the virus, and the virus isn’t usually deadly. (There are some concerns that Zika may be linked to a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, but the association still isn’t clear.)
3. Prevention, not vaccination.
While there’s no approved vaccine or medicine to prevent or treat Zika virus infections yet — an upcoming clinical trail was just announced — there are ways to lower your chances of getting it, namely to avoid any mosquito bites. Steps you can take include wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, using a mosquito bed net, and applying bug spray regularly. (This Environmental Protection Agency tool can help you find the best repellent.) If you’re on an outdoorsy trip, use permethrin-treated clothing and gear. And, in light of the new reports, don’t forget to use condoms and practice safe sex.
So Should You Keep Traveling?
Some airlines and cruise lines are offering refunds, rebookings, or credit for travelers with itineraries to the affected areas, especially for pregnant women. That’s the group, after all, for whom the consequences of getting infected are the most serious. If you’re pregnant and do travel, be sure to consult a doctor prior to the trip and take measures to ward off mosquitoes while away. Trying to get pregnant? It’s probably a good idea to see a doctor, too.
If you’re not pregnant, the signals to cancel a trip aren’t as strong. And the truth of the matter is there are cases of Zika already in the United States that have been mostly brought over by travelers, and there’s some concern that local mosquitos will get infected and spread the virus on. That’s not to say that an epidemic is looming in your town, but it might bring perspective to your plans, and whether it’s necessary to rebook.
Regardless of your situation, all travelers going to affected areas should still take steps to stay safe, and to prevent inadvertently spreading the virus. When you return home, keep in mind that there may be restrictions on things like blood donations when you’re back — the American Red Cross, for instance, is asking people not to donate blood if they’ve traveled to Zika-affected areas in the past 28 days.
For the latest Zika travel alerts check out the CDC’s website.