AMERICANS ARE FREAKING OUT A LITTLE BIT about the Zika virus. Last week, South Carolina officials were spraying insecticides to kill Zika-bearing mosquitos, and inadvertently killed millions of honeybees. As a species, we kinda really need honeybees to, you know, survive, so in retrospect, the move kind of feels like treating a finger splinter by cutting your arm off.
It’s not that Zika isn’t scary — a disease that attacks and deforms unborn babies is frightening in a particularly visceral way — it’s just that the disease is poorly understood, and the hubbub is somewhat overblown.
But the disease is spreading into the United States, to the point where, for many people, it’s no longer an option to say simply, “Oh, I’ll just avoid places where Zika’s a thing until this all blows over.” So here’s what you need to know about traveling in a Zika world.
First, we should demystify the disease a bit.
It’s important to note that Zika is not particularly new, and that it’s relatively mild in comparison to other mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. It was first discovered in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda, and over the course of the following decades, it spread across central Africa, and eventually into South Asia. From here, it hopped to the Pacific Islands, and in 2015, it made its way to the Americas.
Researchers did not spend much time on Zika prior to 2015, mostly because it was a relatively mild fever, and their time and money were better spent on frequently fatal and severe mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria. This changed after the outbreak in Brazil, where there were an estimated 1.5 million people who were infected with the virus. Shortly afterwards, doctors noticed an uptick in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which the brain doesn’t develop properly, resulting in a smaller head and possibly in intellectual disabilities. They also noticed an uptick in Guillain-Barré syndrome, which comes about when the immune system starts to attack the peripheral nervous system. These two maladies were linked to the Zika outbreak, which alarmed the World Health Organization, who declared a Public Health Emergency in February of 2016.
Since then, medical researchers and public health officials have been working overtime trying to both understand the disease and fight it. And they’ve come a long way in that short period of time — the CDC confirmed the link between microcephaly and Zika in April, and the WHO confirmed the link to Guillain-Barré in the same month. But seven months is not enough time to develop a vaccine from scratch, and during that time, Zika has been spreading.
Most people are not in serious danger when it comes to Zika.
The first thing we need to mention, when it comes to Zika, is that if you get it, you are by no means fucked for life. It is not a severe illness for most people. Symptoms include rashes, fever, conjunctivitis, and joint pain, but many people who are infected with Zika will never actually know they are sick. If you do get the symptoms, they will last up to a week, and after that, you will be immune. The disease itself will leave your body in a matter of weeks (though there’s some evidence that it stays in semen longer, which is an issue we’ll get to), and once it has left your system, you are immune. It is rarely fatal.
A very small number of people who get Zika may develop Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is a really small number, though: about 1 to 2 people for every 100,000 infected.
What pregnant women should do about Zika
The only people for whom Zika is seriously dangerous is pregnant women and their unborn children. Scientists are still working to understand exactly how and when Zika causes the problems that lead to microcephaly, but if you are a woman and you are not pregnant, you do not need to worry — if you do get Zika, you simply need to wait for the virus to work its way through your system before getting pregnant. As long as you are on birth control (and are taking it properly), you should be fine.
If you are exposed to Zika (by, say, traveling to a place where Zika is an issue), the CDC recommends waiting 8 weeks before trying to get pregnant.
Zika can be transmitted sexually from men to women, and there’s evidence Zika can last longer in semen, so the CDC recommends that men who have traveled to places with Zika and who have developed symptoms wait 6 months before trying to get pregnant with their partner. If a man has had symptoms of Zika, he should wear a condom for those 6 months. If he simply went to a place where he was potentially exposed to Zika, he should wear a condom for 8 weeks.
If you are already pregnant, the CDC recommends not traveling to Zika zones. If you absolutely must, then you should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. This means wearing insect repellent at all times. The CDC has a list of repellents here that are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. You can also stay in places that have screens on the windows and doors, and that use air conditioning. If you’re sleeping outdoors or in a place that lacks air conditioning and window screens, sleep under a mosquito net. Finally, wear clothes with long sleeves. The less exposed skin, the less likely you are to be bitten.
If you return from a trip to a Zika zone
The reason my doctor always told me to get flu shots was “because you’re not just protecting yourself from the flu, but also everyone else you come into contact with.”
The same goes for Zika: even if you don’t develop symptoms of Zika after traveling to a Zika zone, you could still have it, and the responsible thing to do is to take steps to make sure you don’t transmit it to someone else. This means you should wear insect repellent for three weeks after exposure.
If you’re a sexually active dude, wear a condom — 8 weeks after exposure, 6 months after symptoms. I mean, you should be doing this anyway, but it’s especially important in this case, because you could manage to both impregnate a woman and transmit a virus that could deform the fetus in a single stroke.
If you’re a woman, there’s very little chance you’ll transmit it sexually, so you can just stick to the bug spray.
If you develop symptoms, see a doctor. They’ll decide whether or not to test you for the virus.
If you live in a Zika zone, here’s what you can do.
Mosquitos breed in or near standing water. If there’s a place around your house that has standing water, the CDC recommends cleaning it or turning it over once a week. You should also make sure there aren’t any holes in your window screens and be diligent about bug spray.
The only place in the continental United States that has a Zika problem right now is Miami-Dade county in Florida. Puerto Rico has a particularly bad outbreak. There’s a good chance this will spread further next summer — much of the country is home to the Aedes genus of mosquito that can transmit the disease. These mosquitoes are primarily active during the daytime. This doesn’t mean the disease can’t be transmitted by them at night — just that it’s most likely during the day.
Transmission is likely to drop during the winter, when fewer mosquitoes can survive, and there’s a possibility a vaccine will be available as of next year.
The long and short of it, though, is that you should not panic about Zika. If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about the disease, and avoid traveling to Zika zones.
If you aren’t pregnant and don’t plan on getting pregnant, don’t worry: just be diligent about birth control and bug spray.
You can get a much more comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know at the CDC’s Zika page.