The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising pregnant women to consider postponing travel to the Caribbean and Latin America "out of an abundance of caution" over possible contraction of the mosquito-borne Zika (ZIKV) virus.
The virus is spread mainly by the Aedes aegypti species of mosquito (the same one that spreads yellow fever, dengue, and chikunganya), although the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) also has been known to transmit the disease. The Aedes mosquito family bites during the day.
Should you postpone your Caribbean vacation over fears of Zika? If you're pregnant, the answer could be yes. If you're not, probably not: symptoms of the disease are relatively mild, especially compared to other tropical diseases, and Zika remains relatively rare in the Caribbean despite the widespread outbreak happening in Brazil right now.
Zika, which has no known treatment, has reportedly been linked to risk of sometimes fatal microcephaly (brain swelling) and other poor outcomes for babies of women infected while pregnant. However, if you are not pregnant, symptoms of Zika infection tend to be mild: about one in five people who contract Zika experience fever, rash, joint pain and/or red eyes. Symptoms typically appear 2-7 days after infection and last 2-7 days after they appear.
Research to date indicates that the disease cannot normally be transmitted casually from person to person or through the air, food or water, according to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), although there have been suspected cases of sexual transmission.
The CDC recommends:
- Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
- Pregnant women who do choose to travel, and women trying to become pregnant, should consult with their healthcare provider before traveling to these areas and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip, such as wearing long sleeves and long pants, using DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus based insect repellents, wearing permethrin-treated clothing, and staying and sleeping in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms.
Caribbean countries with confirmed cases of Zika infection include:
- Dominican Republic
- Mexican Caribbean
- Puerto Rico
- St. Barths
- St. Lucia
- St. Martin/St. Maarten
- St. Vincent and the Grenadines
- St. Eustatius (Statia)
- Trinidad and Tobago
- US Virgin Islands
(See the CDC website for updates on affected Caribbean nations.)
Other countries with Zika cases include:
- El Salvador
- French Guiana
In response to warnings from the CDC and the World Health Organization, many major airlines and cruise lines are offering refunds or free rebooking to travelers who have tickets to countries affected by Zika. These include United Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, American Airlines (with a doctor's note), and Southwest (which has always allowed these changes on all tickets). Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean also have announced policies to help travelers avoid visiting Zika-affected areas if they wish.
The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) are working with local and regional health authorities (including CARPHA) to monitor and control the Zika virus, officials said during a press conference at the annual Caribbean Travel Marketplace, held in late January in Nassau, Bahamas. Hugh Riley, Secretary General of the CTO, noted that with more than 700 Caribbean islands, conditions will vary from nation to nation.
"We are in communication with our respective stakeholders and are observing national, regional and international health protocols in dealing with mosquito-borne viral diseases which can be found in tropical countries as well as the warmer regions of the U.S.," said Riley.
"An aggressive [disease] vector control program by hotels and governments is essential as is public awareness and training directed towards employees, businesses and governments," added Frank Comito, Director General and CEO of CHTA. As with other mosquito-borne illnesses, recommended Zika control programs for hotels include:
- Providing staff and guests with information on Zika so that they are aware of the signs and symptoms, how Zika is transmitted, and how it can be prevented.
- Placing insect repellents in every room, or having them available for purchase.
- Avoiding storing water in outdoor containers to prevent them from becoming mosquito breeding sites.
- Covering water tanks or reservoirs so that mosquitoes do not get in.
- Avoiding the build-up of garbage, which can act as a breeding site for mosquitoes.
- Putting garbage in closed plastic bags and keep it in closed containers.
- Uncovering and unblocking gutters and drains to release stagnant water.
- Installing mosquito screening on windows and doors to help reduce contact between mosquitoes and guests.
- Supplying guests with bed nets in areas where the sleeping quarters are exposed to the outdoors.
If you're heading to the Caribbean, be sure that your hotel is following these protocols in order to reduce your risk of contracting Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.