What Travellers Need To Know About Zika

A little known virus called Zika virus or ZIKV is causing a lot of concern and is suddenly getting a lot of media attention. Here’s what travellers need to know about Zika virus, how sick it can actually make you, and how to protect yourself.

Zika Is Not A New Virus

ZIKV is not a new virus; it was first found in Uganda in 1947. It has been spreading slowly for decades, first throughout Africa, (Nigeria 1960), then, in 1966, the first case was confirmed in South East Asia. By the late ’70s, there were infected people in Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Since then, the virus, which is carried by mosquitos or infected people, started hopping across the Pacific, with outbreaks in Yap, Micronesia, in 2007. It affected French Polynesia in 2013, with a huge outbreak of 35,000 cases.

In early 2015, it reached Brazil and started an outbreak in the north-eastern part of the country. In Brazil, the right kind of mosquito to host this virus is extremely common, as it is throughout almost all countries in the Western Hemisphere, except Canada and Chile. Suddenly the virus found just what it needed — the right mosquito and a susceptible population that had never been exposed in any significant way to this virus. And then travellers who were infected with the virus began to appear in neighbouring countries, like Colombia, and Venezuela. Infected people have inadvertently carried this virus to other countries in the Americas (more than 20) and beyond — all within less than 1 year since it first appeared in Brazil.

How Sick Does it Make You?

To add to the complexity, about 80 percent of the people who are infected don’t get sick at all; they do not experience any symptoms. The other 20 percent generally experience a mild flu-like illness with no serious complications. With some rare exceptions, the virus only spreads through the bit of an infected mosquito. At least that has been the accepted medical experience. There is no vaccine for this virus and no specific treatment.

EXCEPT…

Evidence Suggests It Is Linked To Microcephaly

Now there is growing scientific evidence that this virus might be the cause of a serious congenital defect in newborn infants called microcephaly (small head due to failure of brain development). More needs to be learned to nail down whether or not it is a cause, since there are other things and other infections that can cause this condition. But what is know so far is that:

  1. The increase in the number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil from an average of about 150 case a a year to almost 4,000 cases since this virus first arrived coincides with the rapid spread of the virus in the general population.
  2. The concentration of cases of microcephaly coincides with the highest concentration of people infected with Zika virus.
  3. The virus has been recovered from mothers who gave birth to babies with microcephaly and from babies who died with this condition.
  4. No other countries where the virus is spreading have noted an increase in microcephaly . . . yet.

BUT, some of these associations may just be coincidental. More definitive studies currently underway in Brazil will provide stronger evidence by late spring or early fall.

What Can Travellers Do About Zika?

So what can you do about it, when some countries where Zika is spreading are telling women not to get pregnant for up to 2 years? This is a pretty drastic reaction. There are other alternatives, such as taking serious precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Make sure you use your mosquito repellants and depending on where you are, perhaps a mosquito net when you’re sleeping. So far, the World Health Organization is advising women who might be pregnant and who plan to travel in countries where Zika virus is spreading to consult their physician before and after travel. However, many physicians simply don’t know what’s happening in the country you’re planning to visit. Therefore, until WHO can give more specific recommendations, Sitata recommends that as a precautionary measure, women who are in their first trimester of their pregnancy may wish to postpone travel to affected countries.

Last updated 2016–01–29

These include:

In South America:

Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, French Guiana, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, and Venezuela.

In the Caribbean:

Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, Saint Martin, Dominican Republic, US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico

Elsewhere:

Samoa and Cape Verde

Images courtesy of www.nytimes.com and WHO