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Travelling and the Zika Virus

July 20, 2016 | Diane DeMare

It seems that there’s always a health “curve ball” being thrown at travellers and the latest is the Zika Virus.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is predicting that up to four million people could become infected by the end of 2016, especially with the Olympics coming up in August in Rio, an area already heavily infected.

South and Central America, the Caribbean and parts of the southern US are in the early stages of this rapidly developing health crisis that may eventually post a dire threat to people all over the world.  Well, other than some high altitude, colder climate regions in Chile and Canada, that won’t support breeding of the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito species, the same ones that transmit dengue and chikungunya.  So there are some benefits of living in cold climates!  However, that’s not to say that cases of Zika won’t be reported in these areas, as testing has now confirmed Zika can be transmitted through blood and sexual activity.  However, it is not an airborne disease which is good news for flying, and it is relatively easy to protect oneself against contracting it. Definitely most at risk are pregnant women or women of child-bearing age who plan on becoming pregnant.  However, it’s now apparent their partners are equally at risk and must take every precaution to avoid becoming infected so as not to spread the virus to their sexual partner.

The main thing we’re hearing about Zika is its potential to cause microcephaly, the neurological condition that causes infants to be born with smaller-than-average heads and, in many cases, compromised brain function.  But, on many disease control website, mentioned right up there with microcephaly, is the potential of Guillain-Barre syndrome or GBS, an autoimmune disorder that can leave patients virtually paralyzed, with full recovery taking up to six months, or in some case can be life-threatening.  Unlike microcephaly, GBS doesn’t discriminate!  People of all ages and sexes are equally prone to the disorder.

So, the best advice?  Do your research about the area you are travelling to and arm yourself with the best information in regards to preventing infection.

How can travellers protect themselves against the Zika virus?

  • Consult with your doctor or local disease control centre for the most up-to-date information on the virus in the area you are planning travelling to.
  • If you are pregnant, hoping to become pregnant or are the sexual partner of someone in the previous two categories, avoid travelling to areas where the virus is actively circulating.
  • Use condoms when engaged in sexual activity.
  • If you decide to travel to affected areas, pack an ample supply of mosquito repellent and use it generously.  Those containing DEET (40% or higher concentration) are considered the most effective although there are some milder, plant-based repellents that may also be used.
  • Pack pants, long-sleeved shirts and mosquito netting for the hours mosquitoes are most active.  Treat clothing with permethrin, or buy items that are pre-treated.
  • If using both sunscreen and bug repellent, apply the sunscreen first.
  • Close doors and make sure window screens are fully closed when you sleep.  Use mosquito netting as extra insurance.
  • Be vigilant with anti-mosquito precautions around the clock, as the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus are active during the day as well as night time.

For now, for better or worse, world travellers appear to be counting on a combination of common sense, optimism, and good old-fashioned bug spray to keep them safe from Zika.

References:

World Health Organization (WHO):  http://www.who.int/csr/disease/zika/information-for-travelers/en/
U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC):  http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html
Public Health Agency of Canada:  http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/diseases-conditions-maladies-affections/disease-maladie/zika-virus/index-eng.php