Back in 2016, the Zika Virus made headlines across the globe as doctors warned travelers –– particularly those who were pregnant or looking to get pregnant –– to take caution when visiting infected areas. For a time, it seemed like the virus presented a major health scare, with individuals contracting it in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and across South America.
But just a few months later, the Zika scare seemed to be over with little mentioned about it since. As it turns out, the virus is still active in certain parts of the world, giving some travelers a reason to take pause. Here's what you should know about the current status of the affliction.
What Is Zika?
Zika is a virus that is carried by mosquitos and passed on to humans from the insect's bite. It has been around since the 1950's, but up until recently, it has mainly been found in a narrow band that surrounds the globe near the equator. Scientists now believe that the disease has begun to spread thanks to climate change and warming temperatures, bringing it to areas that have been Zika free until recently.
Zika is relatively harmless to most people, with the vast majority never even showing signs of any symptoms. Those who do get sick could easily mistake the virus for something similar to the flu, with feelings of headaches, muscles pain, lack of energy, and so on. Usually, those symptoms pass within a week or so, with no lasting side effects.
What caused the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to issue a warning about the virus back in 2016, however, is the potential damage it can do to an unborn child. Zika has been linked to a condition known as microcephaly, which results in babies being born with unusually small heads, accompanied by underdeveloped brains. In Brazil, where Zika has been most rampant, there has been a substantial increase in the number of children born with this condition in recent years.
Several years after the Zika breakout there remains no known vaccine or cure for Zika. That means that the best way to avoid catching the disease is to postpone traveling in areas where it is known to be an issue. This is particularly true for women who are currently pregnant or for coupes who plan to become pregnant in the near future.
Of course, that isn't always feasible, as sometimes travel plans can't be avoided or changed. In those cases, there are some other measures that can be taken to help lessen the chances of contracting the virus.
For instance, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants while traveling in parts of the world where Zika is active can be an effective way to combat it. This helps to limit the mosquitos access to your skin, cutting down on the chance of contracting the virus in the first place. Better yet, try wearing insect repellant clothing to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Both ExOfficio and Craghoppers have extensive lines of travel apparel with Insect Shield built right in. Those garments actually look great and perform very well as active travel garments too. Additionally, it might be a good idea to wear light gloves and mosquito netting over the face too. The less exposed skin, the better.
Of course, you can also use insect repellant sprays, although once again caution is recommended. Something like DEET is highly effective but comes with its own health concerns too. Pregnant women may wish to avoid any bug spray that uses DEET at all and instead go with a more natural option such as those made by Burt's Bees. These repellants are safe, clean, and environmentally friendly, although they might not be quite as effective.
While instances of it actually happening have been extremely rare, it is now known that Zika can be transmitted between people through sexual intercourse too. In the past, it seemed like the virus was only a threat to pregnant women, but now it has been proven that an infected man can pass the disease to a woman through his semen.
Because of this, men who have visited infected zones are encouraged to use condoms when engaging in sexual activity with their partners or abstain altogether, for a several weeks after their return. And as a precaution, men who have partners that are already pregnant should use a condom during sexual intercourse until after the baby is born. The CDC stresses that mosquito bites are still by far the greatest method of contracting the virus, but caution should be taken none the less.
The good news is that the reports of contracting the Zika virus have dropped off dramatically in recent years. In fact, there haven't been any cases within the U.S. for both 2018 and 2019. Still, the virus remains an active threat for those visiting Central and South America. If you'll be visiting that region in the near future, caution is still advised.