Zika Virus Spreading to More Destinations

A young man sleeps inside a mosquito net at an ecolodge in Ethiopia.
Michael Hanson/Getty Images

One of the biggest health concerns that travelers currently face is the Zika virus. This unique and scary illness doesn't pose much of a direct threat to those who are infected but instead can cause a birth defect known as microcephaly in unborn children. Because of this, women who are currently pregnant are strongly discouraged from visiting areas where the virus is known to exist. On top of that, since Zika has now been shown to be transmitted through sexual contact, both men and women are advised to take precautions if they have potentially been exposed to the disease.​

But cases of Zika being transmitted sexually remain relatively low at this point, with the primary method of exposure to the virus coming through mosquito bites. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to prevent the spread of Zika, which is now spreading to more destination across the world and the U.S.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Zika is now most prevalent in the America's and is found in 33 nations in that part of the world. Those countries include Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, and Jamaica. The virus has also been found in the Pacific on islands that include Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, as well as American Samoa and the Marshall Islands. In Africa, Zika has also been found in the Cape Verde region.

But, as more cases of Zika continue to pop up, it now seems that it is even more widespread than first thought. For instance, Vietnam has now had its first two reported cases, which could indicate that the virus will soon spread throughout southeast Asia, where other mosquito-borne viruses are common.

There have been more than 300 cases of Zika reported throughout the United States as well, but in each of those instances the people infected most likely were exposed to the disease while traveling abroad. There has been no indication that mosquitos carrying the virus are currently active in the U.S. Zika is a growing concern in Mexico however, which leads most researchers to believe that it will soon spread to the southern U.S. and possibly beyond.

Recently, the CDC actually extended the range within the United States that it believes the Zika virus could eventually spread. The virus is carried by a species of mosquitos known as Aedes aegypti, and those insects are found in more areas of the country that previously thought. The most current projected map of potential outbreaks has Zika stretching coast to coast across the southern U.S. from Florida to California. Additionally, the infected zone could stretch up East Coast as far as Connecticut.

Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine for Zika, and since symptoms are generally very mild, most people don't even know if they've been infected. But, studies seem to indicate that once you have contracted the disease, your body builds up an immunity against future outbreaks. Additionally, researchers have recently mapped the virus' structure, which could eventually help in fighting the disease or preventing it from having an impact on unborn children.

What does this all mean for travelers? Mostly it is important to know how likely you are to be exposed to Zika, both at home and on the road. Armed with that knowledge, you can then take the appropriate steps to avoid potential complications with a pregnancy. For instance, it is recommended that men who have visited a destination where Zika is known to exist either abstain from sex with their partners or use condoms, for 8 weeks after their return. Women who have visited one of those locations should wait at last 8 weeks before trying to conceive.

The CDC also says that couples should put off trying to get pregnant for as much as six months in order to give themselves the best chance of having a healthy child free from microcephaly.

As you begin making plans for upcoming travels, keep these guidelines in mind. Chances are, you may not ever contract the disease, and if you do, you probably won't even know it. But, it is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with something this potentially dangerous.