As with most stories that make a splash into the headlines, Zika virus had its 15 minutes of fame, but has since seemed to fade into the arena of “old news”. So, as the intrepid traveler, is this an infection you should be worrying about or was this just a story for a news starved world? As your travel medical expert I can confidently say, it depends.
Why the lack of a clear answer? Well, for most who actually contract the infection (a viral illness), they will have few, if any symptoms. These symptoms are often limited to what most would describe as a common cold or “just a virus”. A few days of low-grade fever, body aches and just not feeling well in general would be the most common symptoms of the infection. So, it’s not that big a deal, right?
While the above symptoms don’t pose a significant risk to the average traveler, the affects the virus can have on unborn children is the real risk. The most severe effects of the infection are microcephaly (small head due to an underdeveloped brain) and severe brain defects. Of course, this can be devastating to the newly born infant leading to a lifetime of disability or death.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for the illness (as with most viral infections) and, as yet, there is no vaccine to prevent infection or its spread. While this might not seem to affect at least half the population of travelers (men) or those women beyond childbearing age, there is reason for everyone to take this disease seriously. That is because the disease can be spread for weeks or even months by the hapless traveler after he or she returns from a trip to an affected region. This transmission can take place via mosquitos biting an infected (although unknowing) carrier after their return to their home country and then biting another person who never even left their back yard. Transmission can also take place via sexual intercourse. The virus can remain active in semen for months and be passed on to an unsuspecting partner months after returning from a trip to an endemic region.
With all of this information, what is the world traveler to do? The first step when approaching almost any problem is to do your research. First, are you traveling to an area that is known to be infected by the Zika virus? These areas include parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, the Pacific Islands and South America. For a full list visit www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html. Secondly, determine your personal level of risk. If you are currently pregnant, the CDC recommendation is that you NOT travel to any of the areas known to be affected by Zika. If you are not pregnant, you should at least plan to use mosquito repellent (as well as long sleeve shirts and other barriers) and, if sexually active, use condoms during your trip. After your trip, it is recommended that you continue to use condoms (for up to 6 months) to prevent spread as well as mosquito repellent (for 3 weeks) to avoid spreading through mosquito bites back home. Travelers who have a pregnant partner should use mosquito repellent as above as well as continue condom use throughout the rest of the pregnancy. If you are considering pregnancy and you traveled together as a couple or the male partner separately, it is recommended you wait 6 months prior to beginning any attempts at conception once you return from the infected area. If you travel alone as a female, the recommendation is to wait 2 months after you return from your trip before attempting conception. These time frames allow for the virus to be naturally cleared from you and your partner’s systems prior to any potential exposure to a fetus.
While some of these recommendations may seem a bit difficult to follow, it is our duty as travelers to ensure we do not spread such illnesses to our unsuspecting friends and neighbors. Of course, we cannot cover all special situations and circumstances in such a short article. So, please check out the CDC’s travel illness website and be sure to talk with your local physician or a travel physician about Zika and other illnesses you could come into contact with while on your next great adventure.