he Zika Virus is the latest in a long line of ailments that have brought cause for concern to travelers. The mosquito-borne disease seems to be currently spreading like wildfire through Latin America, and the number of people contracting the virus is on the rise. If you plan to visit a region where Zika is currently active in the months ahead, it is important that you know the risks and symptoms before you head out. Armed with that knowledge, we have some tips that could help you avoid the virus altogether.
What Is Zika?
As mentioned, 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 now.
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 has caused the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to issue a warning about the virus, 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 is rampant, there has been a substantial increase in the number of children born with this condition over the past year or so.
At the moment, there is no known vaccine or cure for Zika, so 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 plan to become so 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, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants while traveling in parts of the world where Zika is active. This can help limit the mosquitos access to your skin, thus cutting down on the chance of contracting it in the first place. Better yet, try wearing insect repellant clothing to keep the bugs away in general. 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 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 time 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 for transmitting the virus, but caution should be taken none the less.
Make no mistake, the threat that Zika poses to travelers is very real. But avoiding it is also a real possibility using some of the steps outlined here. For those who absolutely must travel in an infected zone, these are the best approaches to dealing with the threat for now.