You’ve been hearing about the Zika virus for several months now—though previous warnings only concerned travelers with plans to vacation south of the border or those with tickets to check out the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
But last week, health officials reported that Zika is actively circulating in Wynwood, a small community slightly north of downtown Miami, Florida. Then, just yesterday, officials bumped up the number of Wynwood residents who’ve been infected to 14.
This has led to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) adding Wynwood to the list of places to avoid—particularly if they, or a partner, is pregnant. (That’s a big deal because it’s the first time the agency has issued this type of travel warning inside the U.S.)
Here’s everything that you need to know about how Zika is transmitted, the risks, and your potential options.
What Is the Zika Virus and Where Does It Come From?
The Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947. At the time, it was thought to cause only relatively mild flu-like symptoms.
In May 2015, Zika appeared in Brazil. By that November, Brazil had seen a 20-fold increase in babies born with abnormally small heads—a birth defect called microcephaly. It took a few more months, but the centers for disease control confirmed that Zika was the cause.
Since the initial outbreak of Zika in Brazil, the virus has rapidly spread through surrounding countries and up into Central and North America.
That brings us up to July 2016, when officials identified the first cases of the Zika virus in the continental U.S.
How Does the Zika Virus Spread?
Zika is transmitted by a mosquito bite or by having unprotected sex with someone who’s been bitten.
While there are a few species of mosquito that carry the Zika virus, the bugger largely responsible for this outbreak is the Aedes aegypti, otherwise known as the yellow fever mosquito. (Fun fact, this little guy can also spread dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever viruses, and other diseases.)
Image via India.com
You can recognize the Aedes aegypti by looking for white markings on its legs and a marking in the form of a lyre (a type of ancient Greek harp—we had to look it up, too) on the mosquito’s throat. However, that’s if you can find the Aedes at all. This crafty species is also called the roach of the mosquito world, since it’s so great at hiding, both in and out of your home.
The Aedes transmits Zika by biting someone who has the virus, then biting another human. The virus then spreads to new areas in two ways.
Mosquitos can hitch a ride on travelers or cargo. More often, the virus spreads when someone who’s contracted Zika travels, gets bit by another mosquito in the new location, then those mosquitos carry the infection to others via a bite. Basically, human carriers can unknowingly bring Zika to new areas faster than mosquitos can alone.
Scientists have also confirmed that the Zika virus can be transmitted through unprotected sexual contact.
There’s no vaccine for the Zika virus yet, and developing one could take years. This means that, for right now, the only option health officials have is to try and control the spread of the virus by affecting an area’s mosquito population.
Is The Zika Virus Deadly?
Only about one in every five people infected with the Zika virus show symptoms. For those who do get sick, the illness usually isn’t severe, with common symptoms including a rash, fever, headaches, and red eyes. Note that symptoms generally only last about a week—again, that’s if there are any symptoms at all.
A few flu-like symptoms wouldn’t be so scary, but Zika has also been linked to two other health issues. One is Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to temporary paralysis in patients of all ages. (Note that causation hasn’t yet been proven.)
But, what makes Zika really scary is the aforementioned connection between the virus and microcephaly.
This neurological disorder doesn’t just affect the size of a newborn’s head—it also limits brain growth, which can result in intellectual disability and speech delays. In some cases, microcephaly can also lead to seizures, abnormal muscle function, and even death. Some countries are so concerned, that they’re warning women not to get pregnant at all.
What Does the CDC Say About Travel and the Zika Virus?
According to CNN, U.S. health officials don't expect Zika to be widespread, as has been seen in Puerto Rico and throughout the Americas.
That’s because state-side outbreaks of two similar mosquito-borne diseases, dengue fever, and chikungunya, remained relatively contained due to local living conditions, including regular use of air-conditioning and mosquito-control efforts.
It’s due to concern for the well-being of fetuses that’s led to the CDC issuing travel warnings targeting expectant mothers, both for Wynwood, Florida and many countries in Central and South America, including Brazil. It’s also the reason why Today Show anchor and mom-to-be Savannah Guthrie won’t be going to the Olympics in Rio this summer.
Additionally, because Zika can be transmitted through intercourse, the CDC is asking men who have been in affected areas to wear condoms to protect fetuses and limit the risk of Zika spreading further.
Travelers who aren’t concerned about the risks the Zika virus presents to unborn babies are still cautioned to apply insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, and stay inside when possible.
Should I Cancel My Trip Because of Zika?
As worry over the mosquito-borne Zika virus spreads, you’re no doubt wondering whether you should rethink travel to affected areas, whether summer in Rio or Christmas in Miami.
The answer depends.
If you or your partner is pregnant, the CDC is explicit in its recommendation that pregnant women postpone travel to any area where Zika is spreading.
If you and your partner are planning to conceive in the near future, the CDC is less clear on instructions. Their website currently tells nonpregnant women (and their male partners) planning to travel to places with Zika outbreaks to talk to their healthcare providers.
Based on what researchers currently know, a Zika infection won’t pose a risk to a future pregnancy. However, its lasting effects also depend on how the virus is transmitted.
If you contract Zika through a mosquito bite, you can expect a three-to-seven day incubation period followed by about a week of illness. By then, your body mounts an immune response that includes neutralizing antibodies.
If Zika is transmitted sexually, it may be possible for it to persist for longer periods. How much longer? Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, tells CNN, “If it's like Ebola, it could still be there nine months later.”
The good news? According to The NY Times, once a nonpregnant woman has been infected with Zika, she’s immune from future infection. However, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the virus, and that might be cause for those planning to conceive to think twice.
If you’re a healthy adult with no plans to get pregnant, you’re free to keep calm and carry on with your plans to travel to Rio, Miami, or any other infected area.
While you don’t need to change your travel plans, you should still be extra cautious when taking steps to avoid mosquito bites, lest you be the next carrier to introduce Zika to a stateside area upon return. Steps include:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Staying in places with air conditioning and window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
- Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. When used as directed, these insect repellents are proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
- Removing or staying away from mosquito breeding sites, like containers with standing water.
On the Fence? Read the Fine Print on Your Ticket or Policy
Still unsure if you’d like to travel to potentially infected areas, or just sit home and binge watch your favorite show? Thankfully, several major airlines have offered fee-waived cancellations and alterations:
- Lufthansa said any pregnant passenger, and their companion, can rebook a flight to any of the affected countries free of charge. This also applies to its affiliated carriers Austrian Airlines and Swiss.
- JetBlue says passengers may be eligible for refunds or exchanges if they booked travel on or before August 1 to travel to areas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports are affected by the virus.
- American Airlines says pregnant women planning travel to Latin American or the Caribbean can request refunds if they provide doctor's notes confirming the pregnancy.
- Spirit Airlines simply asks travelers to contact them about possible changes to their itineraries if they have concerns about the risk of the virus. Delta has the same policy.
- Travelers flying on Southwest Airlines can change travel plans free of charge and fares paid for non-refundable flights can be credited for future travel, as long as the reservation is canceled 10 minutes prior to flight departure.
Some cruise lines have also instituted policies to benefit any travelers seeking to avoid Zika-affected areas. Carnival and Norwegian are allowing pregnant women to switch itineraries to an unaffected destination. Alternatively, they can postpone or cancel the trip in exchange for future credit. Royal Caribbean is offering pregnant travelers similar options.
While airlines and cruise lines are stepping up, travelers should be aware that many standard travel insurance policies usually do not include coverage for calling off a trip—even if the traveler is at heightened risk from a disease outbreak.
If you’re still in the planning stages of your next trip, experts say that the safest bet is to buy a more comprehensive package known as “cancellation for any reason.” Although, it’s worth noting that these policies typically cost about 20 percent more than standard alternatives and still generally cover only 75 percent of your cancellation penalties.
Bottom Line? Exercise Prudence, Especially If You’re Pregnant
The fact that so much remains unknown about the Zika virus has many would-be travelers on edge. That includes the aforementioned journalist, Savannah Guthrie, who isn’t attending the Olympic Games due to pregnancy, and Olympic long jumper Greg Rutherford, who is reportedly freezing his sperm.
While you likely needn’t head to the nearest cryogenic lab, serious precautions may need to be taken.
If you’re pregnant or planning to conceive in the next six months, take care not to travel to any area that’s affected by the virus. For everybody else? Don’t forget that protecting yourself while in a high-risk area isn’t just important to your own well-being, but to those who could be at risk in your home community once you return.
Note that the Department of Health has activated a Zika information hotline for Florida residents and visitors, as well as anyone planning on traveling to Florida in the near future. That number is 1-855-622-6735.
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