Status of Zika in Asia: Warnings and Symptoms

Measures against Zika
••• Pesticides are used to control the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Following the widespread 2015 Zika fever outbreak, many travelers are wondering: is there Zika in Asia?

Technically, Zika has been in Asia since it’s early years. In 1952, a medical study revealed that many Indians carried the antibodies for the Zika virus -- evidence that exposure had already been happening for a long time in Asia.

Although Zika got its start in Africa, and then later Asia, there were only 14 confirmed cases until 2007.

Back then, the virus was not considered an epidemic as it is today.

Is There Zika in Asia?

The epicenter of the latest Zika fever outbreak seems to be Latin America, but travelers have carried the virus all over. A single case of Zika was confirmed in Thailand in February 2016. In January 2016, a single case was reported in Taiwan; the man had traveled from Thailand.

The Zika virus is thought to have been carried to Southeast Asia back in 1945 but was never considered a serious problem. Cases were recorded in Indonesia between 1977 and 1978, however, there was no widespread outbreak.

Don’t assume that Zika is primarily a threat in rural villages or the deep jungle. The Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads it and dengue fever actually thrive better in urban environments.

The current outbreak may not be centered in Asia, but the Aedes aegypti mosquito is ubiquitous throughout Asia’s tropical zones; the situation could literally change overnight.

Governments across Asia have issued travel warnings and are testing travelers for fever as they arrive.

The U.S. CDC has warned women in any stage of pregnancy to postpone trips to Zika-affected areas. The WHO recommends that couples wanting to become pregnant should abstain from unprotected sex for up to eight weeks after returning from a Zika area.

If the male has exhibited Zika symptoms, couples should avoid unprotected sex for at least six months.

Keep yourself informed about the status of Zika in Asia by monitoring these two sites:

Symptoms of Zika

The symptoms of a Zika infection are mild, vague, and nearly indistinguishable from those of other viruses, including dengue fever. If you develop a mild fever while traveling, don’t self-diagnose and no need panic! Temporary ailments are common on the road and are often brought on after our immune systems are weakened by jet lag and exposure to unfamiliar bacteria in food.

Only a blood test can verify whether or not you have been infected with Zika. Many people never develop any symptoms and recover before seeing a doctor.

The symptoms of Zika appear a few days after contact and usually clear up in two to seven days:

  • Mild fever
  • Mild headache
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash (small, flat, red bumps similar to measles)
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

How to Avoid Getting Zika in Asia?

The Zika virus is spread via mosquito bites. As a traveler, the best way to steer clear of Zika is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes!

The WHO has confirmed that Zika can be spread from human to human through sexual contact, although many key facts (e.g., how long Zika remains in semen, can it be spread through saliva, etc) are still missing.

Zika is primarily carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito -- the same mosquito that spreads dengue fever in Asia. These mosquitoes have white spots that cause travelers to sometimes refer to them as “tiger” mosquitoes. They prefer to bite at dusk and dawn, so protect yourself before going out for dinner -- particularly your feet and ankles. The CDC recommends using a repellent of 30% DEET or less. Apply DEET before putting on sunscreen.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is a weak flier with little energy, meaning that it doesn’t stray too far from the stagnant water in which it was born. In fact, without assistance, the mosquitoes can rarely fly farther than 400 meters.

You’ll often find them lurking under tables (and in other shady areas) to feed on ankles and feet. They breed in water containers, flower pots, birdbaths, barrels, old tires, and any other place there is standing water. Do your part to relocate or turn over stagnant water containers that may become mosquito breeding grounds around your accommodation.

Treatments for Zika

There are currently no treatments or vaccines for Zika, although scientists all over the world are scrambling to produce a vaccine. Despite having a “head start” on Zika because of its similarities to other well-studied Flaviviruses such as yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis, getting a vaccine through human trials and available to the public is estimated to take at least a decade.

The treatment for Zika infections is pretty rudimentary. The WHO recommends rest, staying hydrated, and acetaminophen (branded as Tylenol in the U.S.; paracetamol in other parts of the world) for pain/fever control. Symptoms usually subside and energy returns in less than seven days.

Because the symptoms are relatively similar to dengue fever, and bleeding is a risk for people infected with dengue, avoid taking blood-thinning NSAIDs such as aspirin. Keep a supply of acetaminophen in your travel first aid kit.