Photo: Tom

OVER THE PAST FEW WEEKS, the Americas have slowly become aware of the Zika virus and its dangerous consequences, and as a result, people have begun to freak out. The mosquito-borne virus has potentially been linked to birth-defects in newborn children, and has spread rapidly throughout central and South America. Perhaps most alarmingly, officials in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Jamaica have advised that women in those countries put off getting pregnant until more is known about the disease. If you are planning on traveling to the Americas, here’s what you need to know.

Don’t panic.

First off, calm down: this is a scary virus because of what it can do to babies in pregnant women, but for virtually everyone else, it is nowhere near as scary. Only one in five people who get Zika will develop symptoms. Those symptoms aren’t particularly pleasant — they include fever, rash, headaches, joint pain, muscle pain, and red eyes — but the sickness is usually not as severe as some of the other nasty mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, malaria, chikungunya, yellow fever, or the West Nile virus.

Zika’s scariest aspect is that it may be linked to microcephaly in babies. Microcephaly is abnormal brain development that can cause a disproportionately small head in the child, which may, in some circumstances, lead to death. This link is suspected but is as of this writing not totally confirmed — it has only been under investigation since October 2015, as the result of an abnormally high number of cases of microcephaly in a region in Brazil that had recently experienced a Zika outbreak.

Who should be worried?

The largest danger is to pregnant women, and as such, if you are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant, then you should avoid going to the countries where Zika outbreaks are currently occurring. Because the virus is mosquito-borne, and because the type of mosquito is found in most of the countries in the Americas, we can probably expect the outbreak to extend up to the United States at some point. But as of this writing, no cases have been reported that have originated in the US — though some who have traveled to regions with the outbreak have returned with the virus.

The virus is still mostly transmitted through mosquitoes, though: there are two cases of the disease being transmitted sexually, but not through direct, non-sexual contact. So if you are not in an at-risk area, the risk of your getting Zika is negligible.

The following countries, according to the CDC, are at-risk: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Samoa, Suriname, the US Virgin Islands, and Venezuela.

If you are pregnant (or are trying to get pregnant) and are planning on traveling to those countries, the safest option is probably to cancel your plans. If the travel is unavoidable, or if you live in a place where the outbreak is happening, don’t panic: just try to avoid mosquito bites, and remember that Zika may be linked to microcephaly: it is not an inevitability. The CDC is simply advocating caution, certainly not panic.

If you are a woman, are not pregnant, and you get Zika, don’t worry: the virus typically leaves the system after a week, meaning it won’t infect future babies you may have.

What travelers should do to avoid Zika

Since Zika is mosquito-borne, prevention largely comes down to avoiding mosquito bites. The mosquito that carries Zika is the female Aedes Aegypti, and it is most active during the day. This means that mosquito nets are less effective than they are with diseases like malaria, which are carried by more nocturnally active mosquitoes. This isn’t to say that if you have a mosquito net that you shouldn’t use it: it’s just to say you should take further steps as well. Those steps are:

  • Wear long sleeve shirts and pants, preferably made of thick material.
  • Use mosquito repellent that contains deet.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible.

There is, as yet, no vaccine against Zika, though doctors have developed successful vaccines for similar diseases in the past. A vaccine for Zika is probably 10 years away. If you do get Zika, there’s also no medicine for treatment. Doctors suggest getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and taking acetominophen or paracetomol (NOT aspirin) for any aches, pains, or fevers. Most importantly, if you do get it, make sure you still work to prevent further mosquito bites. If you get bitten while infected, the mosquito can then infect others.

Some airlines are offering pregnant passengers ticket refunds.

If you need to cancel plans, plenty of airlines and hotel chains are working to help. The following airlines are offering refunds:

  • American Airlines is offering refunds to pregnant women with doctor’s notes who have tickets to the following airports: San Salvador, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, Panama City, and Guatemala City.
  • United Airlines is allowing customers flying to affected regions to rebook for a later date.
  • LAN Airlines and TAM Airlines are offering ticket changes to pregnant passengers.
  • JetBlue is allowing passengers to refund or rebook their tickets to affected areas.
  • Hilton Hotels in affected countries are considering waivers and cancellations on a case-by-case basis.
  • Ritz-Carlton Resorts are training employees in mosquito-prevention.

Finally, if you’re traveling to those areas, it’s never a terrible idea to get travel insurance. Not because it will cover you if you want to get a refund — the New York Times is reporting that most travel insurance companies do not think that a CDC warning like the one out for Zika is a sufficient reason for canceling a trip — but because if you were to come down the virus, it would cover your medical expenses. If you do want to be covered in case of cancellation, consider getting a “Cancel for Any Reason” clause in your travel insurance.

For more information, check out the Center for Disease Control’s page on Zika.

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