The once-sleepy Zika virus, first discovered in 1947, has recently exploded in the Western Hemisphere. The mosquito-borne virus causes few if any symptoms in the majority of people, but pregnant women should not travel to countries affected by the virus.
At this time, there is no specific treatment or vaccine for Zika, which is related to dengue.
Travel to Zika Outbreak Areas
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Zika virus is now in more than 100 countries. What began as an outbreak in the Caribbean and Central and South America is now also in Africa, Asia, South America, and Mexico.
Risk of Zika in the United States
In the United States, cases of Zika have been reported in Florida and Texas. A few dozen Americans in the United States have been diagnosed with Zika after traveling to outbreak zones. Virtually all were cases where a traveler returned from a Zika-affected country.
In the vast majority of cases, the virus is transmitted through mosquito bites. Since the type of mosquito that carries Zika likes warm, humid climates, health officials in southern states are concerned that small outbreaks could happen as the weather warms.
Zika Symptoms and Infection Lifecycle
According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent people who contract the virus will experience few or no symptoms at all. Those who do become ill tend to have mild symptoms, including a low fever, rash, joint pain, headache and pink eye.
Zika is a short-lived virus with no lasting after effects. It can take anywhere from two to 12 days for symptoms to appear, if they appear at all. If there is an upside to getting infected with Zika, it’s being guaranteed it will never happen again.
"Once in your system, the virus actually clears your blood after seven days. Previously infected people develop immunity so they can’t ever get re-infected," said Dr. Christina Leonard Fahlsing, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health, a not-for-profit health system in Michigan.
Pregnant and Sexually Active Women at Risk
Most at risk are pregnant women, particularly those in the first months of pregnancy. Many people infected with Zika won’t have symptoms or will only have mild symptoms. However, a pregnant woman, even one without symptoms, can pass Zika to her developing fetus. The virus has been associated with a sharp jump in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads.
The CDC currently recommends women in any stage of pregnancy postpone all travel to areas affected by Zika.
In addition, sexually active women should practice protected sex using condoms starting at least a week before a trip to a Zika-impacted country and continue at least a week after returning home, suggests Dr. Fahlsing. This is to be certain that any possible undetected infection has cleared the blood after traveling to a country where Zika is prevalent.
The CDC recommends that women infected by Zika should abstain eight weeks before having unprotected sex and men should abstain six weeks from unprotected sex.
Steps to Help Prevent Contracting the Zika Virus
If you travel to a region where the Zika virus is active, be sure to take these steps:
- Stay in accommodations with air conditioning and screens
- Use mosquito repellant
- Wear long-sleeved tops and long pants
- Wear permethrin-treated clothing
- Steer clear of standing water where mosquitos can breed and multiply
Travel Insurance and Zika
In light of the health concerns, several US airlines (including American, United, and Delta) are allowing some customers to cancel or postpone their trips if they’re ticketed to fly to affected areas.
Most insurance plans are treating the Zika virus as any other illness in the plan's terms and conditions, according to Stan Sandberg, co-founder of Travelinsurance.com. For example, if a traveler contracts the virus while traveling, under most plans they would be covered for emergency medical, medical evacuation and trip interruption benefits.
- For at least two insurance providers, Roam Right and APRIL Travel Protection, the CDC warning does not impact the availability of travel insurance. Travelers can still purchase travel insurance plans for travel to countries listed in the CDC warning.
- None of the travel insurance providers are considering the CDC warning a reason to cancel a trip to an affected country. Travelers who want an option to cancel should buy plans with a Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) option.
Areas Where Zika Is No Longer Present
There are some islands where Zika was previously found but scientists have determined the virus is no longer present. This means all travelers, including pregnant women, can visit these destinations with no known risk of getting Zika from mosquitoes. If Zika returns to a country or territory on this list, CDC will remove it from the list and post updated information.
As of November 2017, this list of islands includes American Samoa, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Guadeloupe, French Polynesia, Martinique, New Caledonia, St. Barts, and Vanuatu.