Most discussion of the Zika virus epidemic of the last few years has been focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet continental borders, even those separated by vast bodies of water, are no barrier for mosquito-borne diseases, as the southern United States has found.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued travel advisories for dozens of countries in the Americas, but every nation within or close to the tropics remains a potential risk zone — including the nations of tropical Southeast Asia.
Few of these countries have been completely untouched by Zika, yet at the same time, confirmed cases have been extremely rare. This could be down to a somewhat endemic level of Zika present across the region for many years, which may have caused a background level of immunity among much of the population.
But in at least a couple of documented cases, babies have been born in the region with microcephaly which can be directly traced to Zika infection. Travelers with no prior exposure are at minor risk, and the CDC advises all pregnant women to skip the region.
The Zika-carrying mosquito is only found at altitudes below 6,500 feet but the virus can also be transmitted sexually even if the person does not have symptoms at the time. Don’t forget the condoms.
Bordering northeast Thailand, landlocked Laos has reported very sporadic cases of local transmission. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang and capital Vientiane are popular ports of call on the backpacker trail through Indochina and the once-sleepy village of Vang Vieng has morphed into an unlikely hedonistic hotspot and extreme sports haven, surrounded by incredible scenery.
As in Thailand, travelers can minimize their Zika risk by heading to the hills. The Bolaven Plateau is a craggy landscape of plantations and waterfalls, flowing into the Mekong River. As the great river meanders its way south toward Cambodia, the Laos hinterland turns into a tropical savanna climate which brings more inherent Zika risk.
As noted by the CDC, there has been an upsurge in dengue fever cases in 2017 across the country. The so-called “hot zones” are the Red River and Mekong Delta and some provincial towns in Central Vietnam. There have been few locally-acquired cases of Zika reported in the country, although both Zika and dengue share the same carrier — the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Beyond the coast, Vietnam’s hinterland is fairly mountainous. Travelers head to the hills for respite from the heat, and in doing so, minimize the risk of contracting Zika. Picturesque Dalat in the Central Highlands and Sapa are the go-to spots for a cool mountain retreat.
There have been just a handful of Zika cases reported in Cambodia since 2010 and the CDC cites a moderate risk of Zika transmission. That risk, however minor, is at its peak during the monsoon deluges from June–October when flooding is commonplace and rural dirt roads can simply wash away. The country’s latest destination du jour is the emerging ecotourism hotspot of the high-altitude Cardamom Mountains — another lower-risk area.
Thailand, like the Southeast Asia region as a whole, poses a minimal risk of Zika infection according to the CDC. This falls short of an official travel warning; however, it advises pregnant women to put off any planned trips.
Thailand has a diverse topography, ranging from the island and beach hotspots and perennial favorites like Phuket and Koh Samui. Beyond the beach bum lifestyle, Northern Thailand lures travelers in huge numbers. The northern hub of Chiang Mai is enormously popular and, although sporadic cases of Zika have been confirmed, the higher elevations and somewhat cooler climates mitigate the risk.
Many of Thailand’s towns and heaving cities are susceptible to flooding during the monsoon season, which brings the added hazard of stagnant water, a known breeding ground for the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This just means taking added precautions — long-sleeved shirts and long pants and more liberal use of mosquito repellent.
All information was correct at time of publication but travelers should be sure to check the latest CDC Zika advisories before booking.
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