Zika is no joke. Its link to birth defects like microcephaly is enough to give anyone pause—especially pregnant women. And with no effective treatment and no vaccine yet available, it’s natural for travelers to reconsider vacation plans to at-risk areas like the Caribbean and even parts of Miami.
The good news? In the realm of human pathogens, Zika is relatively mild. Most individuals with Zika don’t have any symptoms at all, and those who do typically experience mild fevers, rashes or joint pains. What’s more, once infected, research suggests you likely won’t get it again.
The bad news: Plenty of older and less well-known diseases are more likely to cause harm to travelers (think: bleeding out of your eyes, foaming at the mouth). Here’s how to protect yourself on your next vacation.
01 of 07
The same mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus transmit dengue fever. More commonly known as “breakbone fever,” dengue can cause some pretty nasty symptoms of intense muscle and joint pain, high fever, and nausea. For an unlikely portion, the disease can escalate into Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever, which can cause blood to pool in your eyes.
What makes dengue scary, however, isn’t just its propensity to cause miserable symptoms. It’s also one of the fastest growing tropical diseases on the planet.
To use the term “tropical” might actually be a bit disingenuous. Cases of dengue used to be limited to just a little more than a handful of countries along the equator. Now, the virus is found in more than 100 countries around the world, with cases reported even in France, Croatia, and Hawaii. Roughly half the world’s population is at risk for the virus, and millions of people become infected each year.
Currently, there’s no treatment for dengue, and no vaccine is available for American travelers. But you can limit your risk of dengue by wearing long pants and sleeves and using insect repellent to avoid mosquitos, especially during the day.
02 of 07
Few diseases are as terrifying—or as fatal—as rabies.
Hollywood depictions of the virus often feature aggressive dogs foaming at the mouth. In humans, the disease can look very different. The effects and symptoms of rabies vary, depending on how the person became infected—the virus can cause hyperactivity in some people and paralysis in others—but a telltale sign is hydrophobia or fear of water. And regardless of what symptoms appear, the end result is almost always fatal.
It is the deadliest disease on earth in terms of survival rate, which is why if there’s even a chance you could have been exposed, immediate medical attention is critical. Sometimes a person can be infected for months or even a year before symptoms become apparent, and there’s currently no way to know if you’re infected with rabies until symptoms start. By then, however, it’s likely too late. Only about a handful of people have ever been known to survive rabies after the symptoms become apparent.
Rabies has been found on every continent except Antarctica, though the vast majority of cases occur in Africa and Asia, and it is typically spread through dog bites. If you know you will be spending a lot of time outdoors or in rural areas where dog bites might occur, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated. Getting vaccinated won’t prevent rabies completely, but it can make it easier to treat if you’re exposed while traveling.
03 of 07
When does a disease with a nickname like “The Clap” become scarier than Zika? When it adapts to resist all forms of treatment.
Gonorrhea used to be quite treatable. But in recent years, the sexually transmitted bacterium has become resistant to almost every type of antibiotics, and reports are now starting to pop up all over the world — Northern Europe, China, Japan, Australia — of cases resistant to our last line of defense.
Many people (including most women) with gonorrhea don’t have symptoms, and so they don’t even realize they’re infected. Those who do experience some moderate unpleasantness of the NSFW variety. But without effective treatment, gonorrhea can lead to long-term pain and even infertility in both men and women. It can also increase your chances of getting or spreading HIV.
Given the increasing risk of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, prevention is crucial. In lieu of total abstinence, the best way to avoid the bacteria is by using condoms during all sexual interactions, including oral sex.
04 of 07
Imagine being perfectly healthy today, and two days later fighting for your life and losing all your fingers and toes — or worse. That can happen with meningococcal meningitis.
This condition is the result of a meningococcal infection causing the protective lining around your brain and spinal cord (known as meninges) to swell up. The effect is often swift, damaging and — in 5 to 10 percent of people — fatal, even with prompt treatment. Those who survive are often left with amputated limbs, brain damage or learning disabilities.
The bacteria that can lead to this condition is spread from person to person after prolonged contact, often through kissing, coughing and sneezing. Not everyone who is infected gets sick, so people can be exposed to the bacteria without even realizing it. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that at any given time 10 to 20 percent of all people carry the bacteria.
The highest rates are in Africa’s “meningitis belt,” which stretches nearly coast-to-coast from Senegal to Ethiopia, but infections can happen all over the world, including the U.S.
Vaccines exist to help prevent meningococcal infection. Vaccination is recommended for travelers going to the “meningitis belt” during the dry season (December through June) and is actually required for those traveling to Mecca during annual pilgrimages. Even if you’ve been vaccinated in the past, a booster dose might be necessary. If you aren’t sure whether you need it or not, check with your doctor.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
If parasites haunt the dreams of travelers the world over, then myiasis is the stuff of nightmares. Technically speaking, myiasis is when humans become infected with fly larva—that is, maggots.
Fly eggs or larva (often from bot flies) get into the skin through open wounds or mosquito bites or by burrowing into the skin. They live there, growing just under the skin, causing lumps that occasionally move or wiggle right in front of your eyes. In most cases, the larvae have to be surgically removed.
You’re more at risk for getting myiasis if you have open wounds or drink untreated water, especially in subtropical and tropical environments in Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. Avoid the unwelcome company by using insect repellent to avoid bites from flies, mosquitoes, and ticks; drinking only properly treated water, and shaking clothing out if has been hanging up outside.
06 of 07
Seasoned travelers typically are no strangers to stomach bugs, but typhoid fever is a particularly nasty one. An estimated 22 million cases of typhoid happen each year — most often in developing countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America — and the disease is responsible for more than 200,000 deaths worldwide.
In addition to the standard abdominal pains and lack of appetite, typhoid fever can cause constipation or diarrhea, high fevers, headache or weakness. In rare cases, it can even cause internal bleeding.
Thankfully, the bacterium is pretty treatable with fluids and antibiotics—at least for now. Like gonorrhea, there’s evidence that typhoid is becoming increasingly resistant to previously effective drugs.
Like a lot of diseases that affect the digestive tract, typhoid is spread through contaminated food or water, so standard water and sanitation safety precautions apply. There are also vaccines available to travelers that are about 50 to 80 percent effective.
07 of 07
Believe it or not, influenza (commonly known as the flu) is not just a bad cold or a stomach bug. It’s a potentially serious respiratory disease that, like Zika, can lead to serious issues during pregnancy. The flu is also believed to be more deadly, killing an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people a year worldwide—including between 3,000 and 49,000 people in the U.S. alone.
Millions more experience miserable symptoms, including intense body aches, fatigue, fever, coughing, sneezing and sore throat. In some cases, it can cause complications like pneumonia.
Anti-viral meds are available in some countries, which can help reduce the severity of the disease if given shortly after symptoms appear. Otherwise, there is very little you can do to treat the flu, except for keeping the fever down with acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Your odds of exposure rise while traveling due to simple statistics: you’re exposed to far more people, often in tight quarters, such as buses, planes or cruise ships. Flu season typically happens during winter months—October through April in the Northern Hemisphere and April through September in the Southern Hemisphere—but you can get flu anywhere year-round, especially in tropical areas.
The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated, especially if you anticipate being in close contact with large crowds of people. And, of course, wash your hands.