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What You Need to Know Before Visiting a Zika-Affected Destination
Experts weigh in on precautions to take before, during and after your trip.
There are smart steps to mitigate your risks of contracting the virus and transmitting it to others.(Getty Images)
With the peak summer vacation season in full swing, many travelers are clamoring for a sunny getaway. But with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioning expectant women, those trying to get pregnant and their partners to avoid places affected by the mosquito-borne virus that's been associated with microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune condition, travelers are pivoting their plans, and for good reason. Beyond Brazil and a variety of popular Central and Southern American and Caribbean locales, cases of Zika have been reported in Florida and other U.S. destinations, prompting travelers to worry about much more than lathering on sunscreen and staying hydrated this season.
While there's no current vaccine available to prevent Zika, there are smart steps to mitigate your risks of contracting the virus and transmitting it to others. We spoke with medical experts about the threats travelers should consider before visiting a Zika-impacted locale. Here are their tips for staying healthy before, during and after your trip.
Research Where the Risks Are
Pregnant women and women who are trying to conceive should skip traveling to any of the more than 60 countries and territories affected by the virus, which include Central and South American countries and many Caribbean destinations, among other tropical areas. If you're expecting, don't travel to a place where Zika is actively being transmitted, cautions Dr. Catherine Y. Spong, acting director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Before you lock in your vacation plans, make sure to consult the CDC's Travelers' Health page to understand the conditions and current advisories associated with the specific destination you're planning to visit, she says.
"If a pregnant woman must travel to one of these [Zika-affected] areas, she should consult her doctor or other health care provider first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip," says Captain Martin Cetron, who leads the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. Another way to reduce your chances of contracting the virus: Pick a high-altitude vacation destination, such as Mexico City, Quito, Ecuador or Innsbruck, Austria. The Zika-carrying mosquitoes cannot thrive in places at elevations above 6,500 feet, Cetron explains.
It's also important to keep in mind that the virus is not only spread via mosquito bites, but also sexually. Additionally, it's possible to contract the virus and not experience any symptoms, Spong says. Only around 20 percent of people infected with Zika are symptomatic, with mild or severe effects, such as fever, rash, red eyes and joint pain. Men should be aware that they can infect a partner up to six months after contracting the virus, she adds. "Because Zika can also be transmitted sexually, pregnant women who have visited an area with Zika, or who have a sex partner who has, should use condoms every time during any kind of sex or avoid having sex during pregnancy," Cetron cautions. Women who have shown symptoms or been diagnosed with Zika should refrain from trying to conceive for at least eight weeks after possible exposure, Cetron says.
Take Precautions Before You Go and Protect Yourself During Your Trip
When preparing for a trip to a destination impacted by Zika, make sure you not only are stocked with the appropriate EPA-registered repellent, with ingredients such as picaridin, DEET or IR3535, but also plenty of mosquito netting. You should also choose accommodations with air-conditioning and closed or screened windows and doors. These mosquitoes are "aggressive daytime biters," cautions Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, travelers' health consultant to the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine. "You're not just protected by sitting under a mosquito net at night," she explains, reinforcing the importance of being diligent about using mosquito repellent often. She also advises emptying anything with standing water in it, like planters, both inside and outdoors. Dr. Rajiv Narula, medical director of International Travel Health Consultants, recommends keeping your room cool and dry and treating your clothes with a repellent like Insect Shield before your trip. He also recommends treating your mosquito net with spray as an extra precaution.
"Travelers to areas where Zika is being transmitted should consider packing insect repellent, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, clothing and gear treated with permethrin [insect repellent], a bed net if mosquitoes will be able to get to where the traveler is sleeping and condoms, if they might have sex on their trip," Cetron advises. He also warns against using any insect repellent on children who are 2 months old or younger.
Protect Others When You Return
When you return from a Zika-affected destination, it's essential to take a few steps to prevent spreading the virus. Spray yourself with repellent for three weeks following possible exposure to prevent spreading Zika, Spong cautions. While you may not show any symptoms of the virus, if you've recently visited a Zika-impacted area, the CDC recommends that travelers use insect repellent to avoid transmitting the virus to non-carrying mosquitoes that could infect others in the U.S. And if you're at all symptomatic, see a health care provider, Kozansky cautions.
While it's unknown how long the virus can stay in your system, "in one well-documented case, sexual transmission is estimated to have occurred between 32 and 41 days after onset of the man's symptoms," Cetron explains. In fact, the Zika virus "has been found in semen at least 24 days after the onset of symptoms. RNA, or genetic material, from the virus has been found in semen up to 93 days after symptoms began, in vaginal fluid three days after symptom onset, and in cervical mucus up to 11 days after symptom onset," he says.
Consider the Potential and Still Unknown Long-Term Consequences
"The broad take is in many ways it's hard to completely quantify risks given that a lot of the information that we'd like to have we don't have," Spong explains. However, there are severe concerns about the longer-term developmental delay a woman can give her fetus and the rare but serious nervous system issues linked to Zika.
"We still don’t know more than we know," Kozarsky says, pointing out that with constantly updated medical findings, "what is true today may not be true tomorrow." The potential neurological conditions and long-range impact for children with brain damage due to Zika is still closely studied, she says. "For babies born with microcephaly after being infected with the virus during pregnancy, problems can range from mild to severe and are often lifelong, including seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, problems with movement and balance, feeding problems, hearing loss and vision problems," Cetron explains.
Conversely, the virus is typically mild and lasts for only several days to a week for adults and children, though a small percentage of people have contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis, he adds. If you're infected, Cetron advises "getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration and taking medication such as acetaminophen to reduce fever and pain."
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