Key information to know about Zika virus and the impact on family travel plans
Far from just being an “in topic”, given many of our readers are pregnant or at the stages of family planning its important that we have a resource page on this site dedicated to understanding more about Zika virus.
On this page we look at why Zika virus an issue for travelling families at present, what precautions you can take and point you in the direction of relevant and current resources that might help better inform any travel decisions you are currently making.
Please, if you think any of this information is out of date or have further advisories or articles to add, put these in the comments below so they can be shared with fellow readers. Information correct and updated as at June 2017. This page is intended for information purposes only; it is not intended to replace medical advice and only links to information and opinions of other professionals and health bodies on this topic.
JUMP STRAIGHT TO WHO GUIDE LATEST AFFECTED COUNTRIES
- Zika virus disease is caused by a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes.
- The symptoms can include mild fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. These symptoms normally last for 2-7 days. The incubation period is unknown but likely a few days.
- The virus is known to circulate in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific and currently, there is no specific treatment or vaccine available.
- The is an increasing body of evidence that women infected with the Zika virus before or during pregnancy have given birth to babies with microcephaly – a disease leading to underdeveloped brains.
Why is it of concern to pregnant travellers?
On 1 February 2016 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Zika virus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern due to a rapid increase in the number of cases of microcephaly being reported, particularly in Latin America. It is not yet 100% proven that the Zika virus is solely responsible for the increase in reported cases of microcephaly, further investigation is still needed to understand the link. By moving the disease to Global Emergency status, among other things WHO will define and prioritise research into the Zika virus, enhance surveillance and help countries with communicating risks under International Health Regulations.
Pregnant women are no more susceptible to catching the Zika virus than any other travellers but the potential impact on a fetus is the key cause for caution and awareness for women in countries identified as having reported cases of the Zika virus. More can be found on the exact links to Microcephaly and the impacts to unborn children in the resources listed below.
There is, however, evidence that mosquitoes are more attracted to pregnant women – perhaps due to their increased body temperature of breathing heavier that releases more carbon dioxide which they love.
So far reports we have reviewed suggest that the risk to a pregnant women becoming infected after travelling through a country is small, but nonetheless not worth ignoring, nor are the symptoms. Women who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant are currently advised not to travel to countries identified as having reported cases of the disease. If travel is necessary then take precautionary measures to avoid mosquito bites, as described below.
It is currently understood that the risk of birth defects is greatest if the mother catches the Zika virus during the first trimester but there is as yet no conclusive evidence. It is not yet known whether perinatal transmission of the disease is possible, though this has previously occurred with other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and chikungunya.
If you have already been in an affected country during a current pregnancy, you are advised to tell your physician immediately. They will run blood tests and may suggest increasing fetal monitoring to every 3-4 weeks (this advice will vary depending on the health advice issued by your country of residence).
On somewhat of a bright side, the disease seems to be contained only to people travelling to affected countries who are actually bitten by mosquitoes themselves. Other than a couple of very rare reported cases person-to-person transmission is not currently a concern, so a pregnant women should not need to avoid someone who has recently visited affected areas. I have seen some health advice though recommending condoms be used if any partner has been to an affected area to minimise any possible sexual transmission of Zika.
It’s important to note that non-essential travel to any area prone to mosquito borne illnesses should be avoided during pregnancy. Although vaccines and medications are available to prevent and treat conditions such as malaria, many are not safe for pregnant women and their unborn children. There is more information here on antimalarials in pregnancy, and further information from WHO here.
General health advice for family travel
For anywhere in the world that you travel, health concerns should always be on your radar (see more on health related issues with family travel here). I always suggest you should check not only the WHO website before travelling abroad but travel advisories issued by the foreign affairs department of your home country. A very authoritative source on global health issues is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Visitors to some countries might be encouraged to take additional vaccines in addition to standard schedules set by WHO.
Sensible precautions to exercise in places where mosquitoes are prevalent include:
- Apply mosquito repellents to the skin of all family members.
- Pregnant women are advised that it is SAFE to use insecticide products that contain diethyltoluamide or DEET.
- Spray rooms that you are staying in with insect repellent, close windows and doors and use netting over bedding where possible.
- Be cautious near still, uncovered sources of water – not just ponds and waterways, also think about watering cans, water tanks where mosquitoes like to breed.
- Wear long clothing to cover as much of your body as possible, preferably in a tight weave that mosquitoes cannot penetrate, and loose but tucked in is best.
- Wear light coloured clothing (yep, I had to look this one up to see if it was true; mosquitoes are more attracted to dark colours than light so pull out your khakis and pastels!)
The Zika virus disease itself is considered to be relatively mild with no specific treatment needed. Those with symptoms should get rest, drink fluids, treat pain and fever with over the counter medicines and seek medical advice if necessary. Currently, there is no vaccine for Zika virus.
How do I know which countries/regions are currently affected?
We suggest you look at these resources for latest information on affected areas and actions you should take if you think you may have come in contact with the virus.
Will insurance companies cover cancellation for Zika virus?
If your upcoming travel plans do cover countries that are affected and you have health concerns, you will need to check the fine print of your travel bookings and insurance policies (because you remembered to take out travel insurance, right?).
Currently, we are aware the CDC in the US classifies Zika as an Alert Level 2 Disease (“Practice Enhanced Precautions”) and most insurance companies WON’T cover your cancellation costs, but you would really need to consult on a case by case basis. The carrier themselves you have booked with (be it an airline or a cruise ship) may, in fact, have more forgiving policies and should be approached in the first instance before assuming insurance will cover cancellation before you have left.
If you are not yet pregnant you are very unlikely to have a case for cancellation based on a future risk; those already pregnant with a medical physicians report evidencing this might have a much stronger case. As the Zika virus has now been classified as a Global Emergency, it is unlikely going forward you will be able to get travel insurance coverage related to symptoms and treatment of Zika virus if you are visiting countries already identified as affected.
This article from Consumer Reports details for U.S. customers some of the courses of action that might be available with various carries for refunds or cancellations.
Remember if you have any concerns, consult a health care professional. If you have been in an affected area and have concerns, ask your physician for blood testing immediately as this is the only way to confirm the existence of the virus.
Ultimately you may need to weigh up the cost of cancellations and changes to your travel plans verse the guilt and uncertainty that you naturally might feel in this situation.
If you have any further specific questions and concerns do let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to find the answers for you. In the meantime, check your upcoming travel itineraries, re-plan if necessary and continue to listen to the media, WHO and government organisations for latest information.
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