The virus has been out of the headlines but that doesn’t mean it is gone. The World Health Organization just updated its guidelines for travelers to the Zika zone. The Zika outbreak in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) had travelers cancelling their plans, but winter season in the Southern hemisphere makes travel safer.
In 2016, when the Zika virus first made headlines, people canceled vacations to Latin America and the Caribbean as the mosquito-borne virus spread through the region and into Texas and Florida. While the illness caused by Zika is mild, it can cause severe birth defects when pregnant women are exposed to it. But almost as quickly as it had taken over headlines, it seemed to disappear from the news.
Recently, the World Health Organization, as part of a report on the virus, updated its guidance for travelers planning to visit areas where Zika is known. It has been identified in 87 countries, including Brazil, China, India and Egypt. Below are some of the updates about Zika and travel you should know.
IS TRAVEL TO A COUNTRY WITH ZIKA SAFE?
For most people, yes. Zika symptoms are relatively mild and only last a few days, but issues arise for women who are pregnant or couples thinking about getting pregnant. Zika is mostly spread through the bite of Aedes mosquitoes but it can also spread through sex with an infected person, so couples should talk to their doctors about risks before traveling.
IS THERE A BETTER TIME TO GO?
The virus is still circulating in Brazil and other countries that were at the center of the epidemic, but it is less prevalent in colder months than in the summer. Travelers can take that into account when planning a trip. The mosquito season is usually the summer in the southern hemisphere, while in the winter the population of mosquitoes is much lower, so try to plan, if possible, to go in winter and stay in cities.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF?
WHO suggests a number of ways to protect your skin while in an area with Zika transmission, including wearing light-coloured clothing that covers as much of the body as possible and using mosquito repellent. If you use repellent and sunscreen, apply sunscreen first and then the repellent, the guidelines say.
Physical barriers go a long way in protecting against mosquito bites. While traveling in affected areas, keep doors and windows closed and sleep under mosquito nets. The guidelines also recommend using insecticide-treated netting materials on doors and windows. Also, to avoid risk of sexual transmission of Zika while traveling, men and women should practice safer sex including the consistent use of condoms or abstinence.
WHAT ABOUT WHEN I GET BACK?
WHO recommends that travelers who have returned from a trip and develop a rash, fever, painful joints or red eyes should contact their physicians, inform their provider of their travel history and get laboratory testing and clinical care as indicated. That can help with the overall tracking of the spread of Zika too, since many of the countries where it has been identified lack the public health infrastructure needed to identify new cases.
If you have returned from a place with Zika outbreaks you should continue to use repellent for at least three weeks to avoid being bitten and potentially spreading the disease.