When the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus a global health emergency a few days ago, it threw some travelers into a panic.
Let’s keep things in perspective: There’s nothing new about mosquitoes carrying diseases. It’s been going on for centuries. Mosquitoes carry dengue, chikungunya, malaria, elephantiasis… and, from what we know so far, most of those other mosquito-borne viruses are nastier. Also, compared with other outbreaks that have set travelers panicking—from SARS in 2003 to MERS in 2012 to Ebola in 2014—Zika is not as deadly. And don’t forget that outbreaks fade over time.
Still, of course, nobody wants to contract a disease. Which is why some travelers are wondering whether to cancel trips to countries where mosquitoes are spreading the virus. It’s spreading in more than two dozen countries, mainly in South and Central America and the Caribbean, including U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There is no vaccine or cure. But it’s not fatal and rarely requires hospitalization. Most people who get it don’t have any symptoms and don’t even know they’ve got it.
The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are learning new information about the Zika virus every day, so the epidemic is an unfolding story, but they agree that the travelers with the most reason for concern are pregnant women. That’s because the virus is suspected of potentially causing microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies’ brains to stop growing. Other travelers with possible reason for concern are those people headed to the Olympics in Rio this summer. Brazil is ground zero for the disease, so some people are wondering whether they should cancel their trip. The Zika virus is also suspected of possibly causing Guillain-Barré syndrome—a neurological condition that can affect anyone and can lead to paralysis.
Potential complications from the virus are terrible, but they are rare among travelers to affected areas. Only one in five people who get the Zika virus get any symptoms at all. Those symptoms—a mild fever, joint pain, a body rash, and conjunctivitis—usually disappear after two to seven days, and the virus clears itself from the body about a week after infection.
So, if you’re planning a trip to a country where mosquitoes are currently spreading the virus, what should you do?
- Bookmark the Centers for Disease Control’s Zika advice page.
And, of course, it’s always smart—before any trip—to read the CDC’s travel health notices.
- Protect yourself from mosquitoes.
The way to get the Zika virus is to be bitten by an infected mosquito. So, in areas where the virus is circulating, you want to avoid mosquitoes. Here’s how to protect yourself from mosquito bites. In a nutshell, use insect repellent that contains 20% or more DEET; wear clothing (preferably light-colored, preferably permethrin-treated) that covers as much of your body as possible; use screens and close doors and windows. Follow these precautions meticulously.
- If you’re pregnant, consider postponing your trip or changing your destination.
Here’s the CDC’s advice for pregnant women. Your risk of contracting Zika virus may be small, but any risk at all of your baby being born with a major birth defect may be too big a risk to take. So, if you were planning a “babymoon”—that last trip together before the baby is born—in an affected area, you might want to change your destination. Definitely consult your doctor before any trip.
- If you’re trying to get pregnant, consider postponing your trip or changing your destination.
Women who are trying to conceive should also consult their doctor before traveling to an area with Zika virus. If they do travel to an affected area, they should use birth control consistently to ensure they don’t get pregnant while in that country.
- If you’d like to get pregnant someday but not soon, travel now.
The CDC explains that the Zika virus remains in the blood for only a few days to a week, although it can be found longer in some people. After the virus is cleared from the blood, they say, there’s no risk of it causing a birth defect in your baby. So, according to the CDC, if you’re planning to start trying to get pregnant a few weeks after a trip to an affected area, there’s no reason to cancel the trip. And, speaking as a mom of two, let me assure you it’s a lot easier to travel before you become pregnant, and before a baby is born, than afterward.
- Don’t overreact. But feel free to consult your doctor.
If you’re not pregnant or actively trying to be, there is probably little reason to cancel a trip. The World Health Organization, which declared the emergency, is not recommending any travel restrictions related to the disease. However, if you have any concerns after consulting the CDC site, it never hurts to consult your doctor.
- If you do postpone your trip, check whether your airline or other travel company will offer a refund or credit.
Some airlines and cruise lines are offering refunds to passengers booked on trips to affected countries.
- If you cancel, and you bought trip-cancellation insurance, don’t assume that it will cover your loss.
Travel insurance providers don’t consider the CDC warning a reason to cancel a trip to an affected country, says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com. If you’re worried about the virus spreading and your having to cancel a future trip, the way to protect your investment is with a Cancel for Any Reason policy.
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