Note: this post was updated on March 1, 2016 to add new information on the link between Zika and the Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
On my visit to the Galapagos last month, I was watching a news report in a local restaurant when an odd headline came on the screen: “First case of Zika discovered in Guayaquil”. “What is Zika?” I wondered. I soon found out, and so has the rest of the world as this virus has swept across the tropical parts of the globe. With new headlines appearing every day, it’s something travellers can’t ignore: is it safe to travel to areas affected by Zika?
The Travelling Boomer is no health authority. But after a survey of government health agencies in Canada and the U.S., plus major news outlets, it’s clear that Zika is an issue for travellers headed anywhere south of the United States, or to parts of Asia and the Pacific. Here’s what every traveller should know about Zika.
What is Zika?It’s a viral illness spread by mosquitoes. It’s been around since the 1950s in Africa, where it hasn’t been a major health issue. However, in recent years it has spread to other parts of the world, where it is suspected of causing more serious effects: primarily microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with an abnormally small head, plus a nerve disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome. At present there is no vaccine for the disease, and no cure, though common drugs can ease the symptoms.
Where does it occur?
Aside from Africa, Zika has been present in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific islands for a few years. It was first detected in the Americas last year, and cases have now been found in most parts of Latin America. As well, it’s present in much of the Caribbean. As of late February, there were still a few countries with no reported cases, including Chile and Cuba, but that could change. Go here for a map of Zika-affected countries in the Americas.
What are the symptoms of Zika?
For most people – including most baby boomers, luckily – Zika is not a major illness. In fact, four out of five people who get infected have no symptoms at all. Those who do get sick typically experience symptoms like fever, headache, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and rash, as well as joint and muscle pain. The illness is described as mild, and lasts only a few days.
Who is at risk?
There is a serious threat to women who are pregnant, or who may become pregnant in the near future. Brazil has reported a high rate of microcephaly among babies born in areas affected by Zika, and suspects the virus is the cause (though a firm connection hasn’t been made). Still, it’s best to proceed with caution, and some Latin American countries have advised women to put off having children for two years or more.
So, pregnant women should think twice about going to a country where there is an outbreak of Zika. But they should also be careful to avoid contracting it second-hand. A number of cases have appeared in the U.S. where men travelling to countries with Zika have returned home and infected their partners, probably through sexual contact.
For the rest of us, the risks are much less serious. However, a new report from French Polynesia has established a firmer link between Zika and Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a serious nerve disorder. In most cases the illness appears within a week after the Zika symptoms, and can cause weakness, numbness and in some cases paralysis. In rare cases it can cause death. The chances of developing Guillain-Barré are slim — the report estimates one in 4,000 — but they do exist.
How can you protect yourself?
For most travellers, the first consideration is to decide whether the risk of contracting Zika is great enough to delay going to countries where it’s widespread. As noted above, Zika is not a major health threat to most baby boomers, since they’re past child-bearing age, so it may not be a serious enough threat to make you stay home. If your health is already fragile, however, it may be more of a consideration.
For pregnant women, or those who may become pregnant, whether to travel to an affected country is a more serious decision. The Public Health Agency of Canada advises postponing travel to a list of countries including Brazil, Barbados, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana, Cape Verde, and Samoa. (This list may grow as more cases are discovered, so check back to stay current.)
Then there’s the risk of getting Zika second-hand if your partner goes to a Zika-affected area. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women whose partners have been to affected areas to abstain from sex or use a condom throughout their pregnancy. And Canada’s Public Health Agency advises waiting two months after returning from an affected country before trying to get pregnant.
If you do decide to go to a Zika-affected country – and with the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year, a lot of people will be heading to Brazil – the most effective thing you can do is avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Precautions include wearing long-sleeved shirts tucked into long pants (not as seen here), applying insect repellent, using permethrin-treated clothing and gear, staying in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms, and using bed nets. The CDC says insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 are safe for pregnant women.
Finally, if you’ve returned home from an affected area and think you may have Zika, it’s important to see a doctor immediately. Apart from getting medication to fight the symptoms, this can allow your doctor to watch for any signs of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and help prevent you from giving the virus to your sexual partner.
What if you’ve already booked your trip?
It’s a big decision to cancel a trip once you’ve made all the arrangements and paid your fare, but in some cases it’s necessary. The major Canadian airlines are helping by relaxing their cancellation policies for pregnant women planning to visit a country with Zika. Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing are all allowing affected passengers to reschedule without fees; Air Canada is also allowing refunds. In most cases the airlines require a doctor’s note confirming pregnancy. You can find more detail on the airlines’ policies, plus contact numbers, in this post from TravelAlerts.
In the United States, American Airlines, Delta and United have all said they would let pregnant passengers reschedule or cancel without fees; South American airlines LAN and TAM have similar policies. Contact the airline or your travel agent if you feel you need to change your travel plans.
For most travellers, including baby boomers, there’s no reason to panic over the Zika virus. At time of writing, the government of Canada — which usually errs on the side of caution — had not issued restrictions on travel or trade to affected countries, only advising special care to avoid mosquito bites when visiting.
However, if you have existing health problems, or if you’re pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, it makes sense to discuss your travel plans with your doctor if you’re headed to a Zika-affected country. Missing a trip this year might be a bummer, but the potential health effects of Zika can be much worse.