Zika Virus: What You Need to Know Before You Travel

For anyone who has considered traveling to Central or South America recently, they’ve also certainly considered the risk of contracting the Zika Virus. We’ve heard from many of our group leaders asking about the risk factors and prevention techniques, and rightly so, since safety is always our #1 priority at ACIS.

The following information is taken directly from the Center for Disease Control’s website:

Zika virus disease (Zika) is a disease caused by the Zika virus, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected. However, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections.

Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika Forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Zika outbreaks have probably occurred in many locations.

The CDC has issued a Level 2 alert (Practice Enhanced Precautions) for the following countries to which ACIS travels: Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guatemala, and Mexico (for anyone traveling to these countries, it’s worth considering that the CDC has not elevated their alert to Level 3 – Avoid Non-Essential Travel).

The most common way in which transmission of Zika occurs in these countries is via mosquito bites. The CDC issues the following advice in regards to avoiding mosquito bites:

Steps to prevent mosquito bites

When in areas with Zika and other diseases spread by mosquitoes, take the following steps:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning and window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Take steps to control mosquitoes inside and outside your home.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol. Choosing an EPA-registered repellent ensures the EPA has evaluated the product for effectiveness. When used as directed, EPA-registered insect repellents are proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women (check out Consumer Reports’ article on best mosquito repellents).
    • Always follow the product label instructions.
    • Reapply insect repellent as directed.
    • Do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing.
    • If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated items.
    • Treated clothing remains protective after multiple washings. See product information to learn how long the protection will last.
    • If treating items yourself, follow the product instructions carefully.
    • Do NOT use permethrin products directly on skin. They are intended to treat clothing.

Even if they do not feel sick, travelers returning to the United States from an area with Zika should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for 3 weeks so they do not spread Zika to mosquitoes that could spread the virus to other people.

For anyone who does happen to contract Zika, the CDC provides the following information about symptoms and treatment:

Symptoms

  • Most people infected with Zika virus won’t even know they have the disease because they won’t have symptoms. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. The incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) for Zika virus disease is not known but is likely to be a few days to a week.
    • See your doctor or other healthcare provider if you are pregnant and develop a fever, rash, joint pain, or red eyes within 2 weeks after traveling to a place where Zika has been reported. Be sure to tell your doctor or other healthcare provider where you traveled.
  • The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week.
  • People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected.
  • Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week but it can be found longer in some people.
  • Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections.

Diagnosis

  • The symptoms of Zika are similar to those of dengue and chikungunya, diseases spread through the same mosquitoes that transmit Zika.
  • See your doctor or other healthcare provider if you develop the symptoms described above and have visited an area where Zika is found.
  • If you have recently traveled, tell your doctor or other healthcare provider when and where you traveled.
  • Your doctor or other healthcare provider may order blood tests to look for Zika or other similar viruses like dengue or chikungunya.

Treatment

  • There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika virus.
  • Treat the symptoms:
    • Get plenty of rest.
    • Drink fluids to prevent dehydration.
    • Take medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or paracetamol to reduce fever and pain.
    • Do not take aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) until dengue can be ruled out to reduce the risk of bleeding.
    • If you are taking medicine for another medical condition, talk to your doctor or other healthcare provider before taking additional medication.
  • If you have Zika, prevent mosquito bites for the first week of your illness.
    • During the first week of infection, Zika virus can be found in the blood and passed from an infected person to a mosquito through mosquito bites.
    • An infected mosquito can then spread the virus to other people.

The CDC also published a series of infographics for adults looking to travel to regions posing a risk for Zika infection.

While the risk of infection is nothing to take lightly, the CDC makes it clear that travel to Central and South America is still a worthwhile and safe endeavor as long as the proper precautions are taken to address the risks involved. While reports in the media can be scary, we’re always here to talk through the facts and risk factors involved to help you make an informed decision on how to prepare for your summer travel.

For more information from the CDC on Zika, click here.

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