How the Zika virus is spread and what travelers can do to avoid contracting it
Special to the Tribune
Avoid the bite
• Wear light-colored clothes that cover much of the body.
• Use insect repellent containing 30 percent DEET.
• Use mosquito netting in areas where adequate physical barriers from mosquitoes don’t exist.
• Avoid standing water, as these areas typically harbor mosquito breeding grounds.
• Consider a permethrin dip for clothes or packs if heading to areas with high rates of mosquito-borne illnesses.
Editor’s note: The current Zika epidemic is ongoing, and although there have been headlines and developments about the virus, information about it is constantly changing. Resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pan American Health Organization offer the most up-to-date information available about the situation.
With the winter season winding down, travel plans for many western ski-town residents are just getting started. And while many people will be leaving the chill of offseason behind, worries about mosquito-borne illnesses, such as Zika, can cast a shadow over tropical destinations.
Brazil, which has been the particular focus of the current Zika epidemic, will host this year’s Summer Olympics, which has led to more concerns over safely traveling to the area. While there are no current travel restrictions to areas such as Brazil, health officials advise limiting exposure to mosquitos to prevent both Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.
Following the facts
The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquito, which favors warm, wet climates, particularly in areas near the equator. Although the Aedes mosquito tends to enjoy the lush habitat provided by equatorial jungles, it also flourishes in similar climates, making areas throughout Central and South America, Asia, the Caribbean and parts of the southeastern United States ideal locations for it to thrive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many people infected with Zika may never know that they have the virus, with symptoms ranging from fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis to much broader symptoms of malaise.
These symptoms can be confused with other ailments when heading to regions dealing with the current Zika epidemic, as a plethora of mosquito-borne illnesses and poor sanitation can often present health risks in these areas. In particular, Zika symptoms tend to be similar to both dengue and chikungunya, which are both frequent infections in areas experiencing Zika and can make self-diagnosis impossible.
The risk for pregnant women who become infected with Zika is one that has gotten significant attention since the most recent Zika outbreak began. The virus tends to infect both the mother and her unborn baby, which has led researchers to caution of a link between Zika and microcephaly in newborns, which is a birth defect marked by a small head and developmental delays.
Zika has popped up before, making the health precautions surrounding this latest epidemic particularly tricky for researchers to pin down. According to the Pan American Health Organization, Zika outbreaks were last experienced in Micronesia in 2007 and French Polynesia in 2013, with the Micronesian outbreak affecting 75 percent of the island of Yap. The current Zika epidemic has drawn more attention because of the large area that has been experiencing cases of Zika and the correlation between the virus and microcephaly.
While there is no vaccine for Zika, health officials advocate taking precautions in areas harboring the Aedes mosquito to limit the possibility of being bit to help prevent Zika and a host of other mosquito borne illnesses. Lucia London, R.N., of the Traveler’s Clinic at Vail Valley Medical Center in Colorado, said the best way to limit potential exposure to the virus is to practice enhanced prevention.
“We recommend insect repellent with 30 percent DEET, applying your sunscreen first, then your insect repellent,” she said. “Also, if you’re going to be in an area that doesn’t have window screens, use a bed net because the mosquitoes will bite day or night. You can also treat your clothes with permethrin to deter mosquitoes.”
The concerns about Zika’s effect on unborn babies have prompted a stronger response, with health officials advising pregnant women not to travel to areas experiencing the outbreak.
“From a hospital perspective, our physicians are advising patients who are pregnant not to travel to the affected areas,” said Kelli Christiansen, of Denver Public Health in Colorado, via email.
The potential for Zika to be sexually transmitted has also led to complications for expectant mothers, with health officials advising couples to use safe sex practices to avoid transmission, especially if thinking of becoming pregnant.
A blood test can determine whether travelers have been exposed to Zika, and if so, couples hoping to get pregnant are advised to wait several weeks before trying to conceive, according to Denver Public Health.
A wide range of resources for travel to specific regions, and information about particular mosquito-borne viruses, such as Zika, can be found online at the CDC’s website, wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel.