One of the biggest health-related news stories across the globe at the moment is the growing alarm over the fast-spreading Zika virus. Up until a few weeks ago, almost no one had even heard of this disease, yet now it is causing widespread concern across Latin America and has many travelers rethinking their plans for this year. But what exactly is Zika, and how can you avoid it? Read on for some answers.
What is Zika?
Like many other diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, the Zika virus is spread through the bites of mosquitoes. The first reported cases date back to the 1950s, but until recently Zika was mainly found in regions that fall close to the equator. That is changing, however, as the virus seems to be migrating further north and south from those regions.
For the most part, the symptoms of Zika are very mild, with only about 20 percent of victims even realizing that they’ve contracted the disease. Those who do take ill often dismiss it as the flu, with sore muscles, headaches, and a general lack of energy being the most common manifestations of the virus. The symptoms typically last for a few days to a week, with the infected person returning to full health shortly thereafter.
What is most concerning about the Zika virus, however, is its potential links to a birth defect known as microcephaly. This is a rare physical condition that manifests itself in some newborns resulting in an abnormally small head, which in turn leads to a severely underdeveloped brain. Last year, the number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil–a country where Zika is known to be rampant–spiked dramatically.
Because of the connection between Zika and microcephaly, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant are discouraged from traveling to regions where the disease is active. On top of that, some governments in Central and South America have advised their populations to avoid having children for up to three years while they look for ways to combat the virus. That alone should give you an indication of how serious this situation is for the places that are affected.
Men aren’t particularly safe from the virus either, as it has now been shown that they can pass the disease along to their partners through sexual intercourse. That means that a man who became infected with Zika could transmit it to his significant other, thus creating a threat for their unborn children too. This adds an entirely new level of concern over how dangerous Zika could potentially be.
Because of the nature of the virus and how quickly it is spreading, a number of organizations have issued warnings recommending that travelers avoid countries and regions where the disease is active. This is, of course, the best possible way to prevent exposure to Zika, at least in the short term. As it continues to spread, avoiding infected areas may become more difficult, but for now it is recommended that prospective parents adjust travel plans to keep themselves–and their unborn children–safe.
If you absolutely can’t avoid visiting a country or region where Zika is known to exist, there are several other ways of lowering your chance of exposure to the virus. For instance, using insect repellent can help keep not only mosquitoes at bay but other types of bugs too. But since some insect repellents (such as DEET) can be very harmful in their own right, you’ll want to limit your exposure to them as much as possible. Don’t use these chemicals for prolonged periods of time. Or look for natural repellants such as lemon eucalyptus, which has proven highly effective too.
Alternatively, travelers could also wear insect repellent clothing. Both ExOfficio and Craghoppers make stylish travel apparel that is specifically designed to be worn while visiting parts of the world where insect-borne diseases are a threat. These garments are treated with a product called Insect Shield, which has been proven to be highly effective at keeping biting bugs away.
If you know you’ll be visiting a destination where the Zika virus is a problem, consider investing in a few shirts and pairs of pants that use Insect Shield. They look like other travel clothes that you already have in your closet, but will provide an extra layer of protection. Wearing a hat or face netting may be wise as well.
The best piece of advice for travelers potentially visiting an area where Zika is active is to take the virus seriously and protect yourself from exposure. This is especially true for pregnant women or couples who are considering having a child. If you don’t fall into that category, it is highly likely that even if you get infected, you’ll come away completely healthy in a short period of time.