In early 2016, both the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) elevated their emergency systems to respond to the outbreaks of Zika virus worldwide. This elevated response was due to the increasing number of outbreaks and the possible association to birth defects noted in populations of women infected with the virus in early pregnancy.
The Zika virus is spread through mosquito bites. The mosquito that carries this virus tends to bite mostly during the day, but can bite at any time. These infected mosquitos have previously been seen in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. However, the risk area has grown to now include Haiti, Brazil, Central America, South America, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and America Samoa. There are even documented cases in the US, but at this point, those cases are being seen amongst travelers returning to the US from a risk area.
While the Zika virus does not appear to be harmful for the majority of people, it does carry a risk for pregnant women and their unborn babies. There appears to be a potential link to increased birth defects, including microcephaly and other neurological disorders in these babies. This continues to be studied, and in the meantime, there are some basic recommendations to avoid contracting the virus.
First of all, if you are traveling to any area where you are at risk for mosquito bites: be prepared! The mosquito that is shown to carry the Zika virus is the same that may carry dengue or chikungunya, so take note of the things you can do to try to avoid these diseases:
- Use insect repellants that contain Permethrin for clothing or DEET for skin, according to manufacturer directions
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- Choose lodging that has air conditioning or window and door screens
- Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you sleep outside or in an area where mosquitos are a risk
- Be aware that the Zika virus can be spread through sexual contact, so safe sex practices are encouraged
How would you know you had the Zika virus? It’s hard to say, because studies are showing that many people who are infected with this virus show few symptoms. For those who do, it may appear with mild symptoms:
- Joint pain
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
- Muscle pain
If you are a normal, healthy person, the chances are the Zika virus infection would not be a big health risk for you. However, as with any disease risk, it is better to be prepared and avoid any risk of illness.
The biggest identified risk is for pregnant women and specifically – their unborn babies. If you are pregnant, or planning on becoming pregnant, it will be most important to consider the following:
- Check with your doctor and travel clinician before traveling to assess your risk, and be prepared to avoid any disease possible. There are some areas in the world where pregnant travelers are encouraged to avoid due to the risk of contracting the virus and the potential for birth defects.
- Use insect repellants as directed
- Stay well hydrated and choose food carefully
- If you are not pregnant yet, but planning to become pregnant while traveling or shortly after returning, consult with your doctor and travel clinician for the most current recommendations – as of this date, it is advised to avoid becoming pregnant for a period of time after travel to minimize the risk of birth defects in the pregnancy.
For continuing information on the Zika virus, the leading authority in the US is the CDC.