Zika Virus in Mexico

Map showing distribution of Zika in Mexico
Courtesy Mexico Tourism Board

If you're contemplating travel to Mexico, you may be wondering about whether the Zika virus is still a concern and something that might affect you. The Zika virus came to the world's attention in the Fall of 2015, when problems related to the virus first appeared in northeastern Brazil. Doctors there noticed a concerning number of babies born with a malformation of the brain called microcephaly, and they soon linked the birth defect with the high number of cases of the Zika virus in the area. The virus spread throughout the Americas, and soon became a cause for concern for people living and traveling in areas where the virus was found.

The hub-bub has mostly died down, but many people are wondering if they should still be concerned about the possible effects of the virus. The number of Zika cases in Mexico and elsewhere has decreased greatly in the past few years, and it is generally not a major concern for most travelers, however, women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant and their partners should take special care. 

What is the Zika virus?

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that, like dengue and chikungunya, is contracted through the bite of an infected mosquito. The Aedes aegypti is the species of mosquito that transmits all of these viruses. There is some evidence that Zika may also be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected person.

What are the symptoms of Zika?

The majority of people infected with the virus (about 80%) do not show any symptoms at all, and those who do may experience fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. They usually recover within about a week. However, the virus is of particular concern for pregnant women and women trying to get pregnant and their partners, as it may be related to birth defects such as microcephaly; infants born to women infected with Zika while pregnant may have small heads and underdeveloped brains. At present, there is no vaccine or treatment for the Zika virus.

How widespread is Zika in Mexico?

The Zika virus has been found in over 20 countries, including parts of the United States, and any area where the Aedes aegypti lives may be susceptible to an outbreak. The countries with the highest number of cases of Zika are Brazil and El Salvador. The first confirmed cases of Zika in Mexico were detected in November 2015. The number of cases reached a peak in 2016, and have been decreasing since then, with 550 cases in 2017 and fewer than 100 in the first half of 2018.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, the mosquitoes that spread Zika do not usually live at altitudes above 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) because of environmental conditions. Therefore, if your destination is above 6,500 feet of elevation, there is very little risk of contracting the virus. At lower elevations, mosquitoes are more prevalent during the rainy season when there is more standing water for them to reproduce, so travel during dry season will also have a lower risk of infection.

The Mexican government has been taking measures to stop the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses with campaigns to eliminate or treat the areas where mosquitoes breed. 

How to avoid the Zika virus

If you are not a woman of childbearing age, the Zika virus is unlikely to cause you any trouble. If you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, or the partner of someone who is, you may want to avoid travel to places where the Zika virus has been detected. Everyone should protect themselves against mosquito bites because they can also transmit other diseases such as dengue and chikungunya.

To protect yourself, choose hotels and resorts that have screens over the windows or have air conditioning so that mosquitoes don't enter your lodgings. If you think there may be mosquitoes where you're staying, ask for a mosquito net over your bed, or use a plug-in or coil repellent. When outdoors, especially if you're in areas where mosquitoes are prevalent, wear loose clothes that cover your arms, legs and feet; choose light-colored clothing and natural fibers for most comfort when the weather is hot.

Use insect repellent (experts recommend using repellent with DEET as the active ingredient), and re-apply frequently.