The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a Level 2 (practice enhanced precautions) travel advisory following an alarming number of reports in Brazil of microcephaly and other severe birth defects in babies born to mothers infected with Zika virus while pregnant.
The advisory is for people traveling to the following 14 countries and regions, where the transmission of mosquito-borne Zika virus is ongoing:
- El Salvador
- French Guiana
- Puerto Rico
According to Brazilian health officials, an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people have fallen ill with Zika virus in Brazil since the country reported its first case in May 2015. And from October 2015 to January 2016, the number of microcephaly cases in Brazil has multiplied more than 20-fold.
The relationship between severe birth defects and Zika virus is currently under investigation. In the meantime, the CDC is acting (out of an abundance of caution) by recommending special safety precautions for pregnant women and women currently trying to become pregnant.
If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the CDC urges you to do the following:
- Strongly consider postponing your plans to travel to locations (where Zika virus transmission is ongoing)
- Consult with your healthcare provider before traveling to these areas
- Strictly follow these steps to preventing mosquito bites
Read on for information regarding transmission, outbreaks, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of Zika virus.
How is Zika Virus Contracted and Transmitted?
Zika virus is spread to people through mosquito bites — particularly through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (also responsible for the transmission of dengue and chikungunya viruses).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been one report of possible spread of Zika through a blood transfusion and one report of possible spread of the virus through sexual contact.
To date, there are no reports of infants contracting Zika through breastfeeding, and the CDC encourages mothers to continue breastfeeding — even in areas where the virus is found.
Though rare, it's important to note that a mother already infected with the virus near the time of delivery can spread it to her newborn around the time of birth. It is also possible that Zika virus could be passed from mother to fetus during pregnancy, a method of transmission currently being investigated by the CDC.
Where Have Outbreaks Occurred?
Prior to 2015, Zika virus had been found in certain regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands.
In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert confirming outbreaks of Zika virus in Brazil.
In December 2015, Puerto Rico reported its first confirmed case of Zika virus, though no other cases of locally-transmitted Zika have been reported in the United States. However, Zika has been found in the United States within returning travelers, and outbreaks of the virus are currently spreading throughout many countries in the Americas.
According to the CDC, the Aedes species mosquitoes that transmit the virus exist in many parts of the world, so it's highly likely that the virus will continue to spread.
Map via the CDC
For a full list of countries that have past or current evidence of Zika virus transmission, click here.
What Are the Symptoms?
Symptoms tend to be mild and may include:
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
Symptoms can last from a few days up to a week. The CDC notes that only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika virus actually develop Zika and become ill. Severe symptoms which require hospitalization are uncommon and deaths from the virus are rare.
How is Zika Virus Diagnosed?
If you develop symptoms and have traveled to a country where Zika is present, you should visit your healthcare provider immediately; he or she can order blood tests to confirm the presence of Zika or a similar virus.
Tell your healthcare provider if you have traveled recently and where and when you went.
What Are the Treatment Options?
There is no vaccine to prevent the virus and there is currently no medicine to treat it. You can treat your symptoms by drinking fluids, getting plenty of rest, and taking acetaminophen or paracetamol to relieve any fever or pain.
In order to reduce the risk of hemorrhage, the CDC urges you to avoid aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen and naproxen) until dengue is ruled out as the cause of your symptoms.
How Can I Prevent the Virus?
There are numerous steps you can take to protect yourself from mosquito bites. If you are traveling to a country where Zika virus is present, or where viruses are contracted and spread by mosquitoes, it's vital that you use insect repellent (apply after sunscreen).
The CDC recommends repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products, as they will provide longer-lasting protection.
The Aedes mosquitoes that spread Zika virus tend to bite most often during the daytime. If the weather permits you to do so, wear long sleeves and pants. Treat your clothing with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated clothing. If your accommodations do not offer air conditioning, be sure to use window and door screens to keep out mosquitoes.
Since Aedes mosquitoes typically lay eggs in and near flower pots, vases, buckets, and bowls containing, you can reduce the number of mosquitoes inside and outside your home or lodging by emptying any standing water.
Check the CDC Website for Frequent Updates
The CDC will update the travel alert for Zika virus as information becomes available. Because specific areas where the spread of Zika virus is ongoing are "difficult to determine and likely to change over time," the CDC recommends checking their travel website frequently for new travel alerts and "up-to-date recommendations."
Consider Travel Medical Insurance
Any time you travel outside your home country, it's important to consider purchasing a travel medical policy to cover your trip. Most domestic health insurance plans will not cover medical treatment abroad. A travel medical insurance policy like Atlas Premium from HCC Medical Insurance Services can help you prepare for the unexpected while you're miles away from home.
Be sure to always refer to your policy wording when planning to travel to destinations where travel advisories and warnings are in place to ensure your trip will be covered.