On January 15, 2016, The Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued a travel alert for as a result of an outbreak of the Zika virus in:
- Central America
- South America
- the Caribbean
- the Pacific Islands
On January 16, 2016, health officials in Hawaii confirmed the first known instance of a Zika virus infection within the U.S., and then, cases have been confirmed in Florida, Illinois and Texas.
The Zika virus is spread by a mosquito, tick, or a flea. Given their proximity and the monthly flow of people across these countries’ borders, it seems very likely that the means of introduction was infected travelers.
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus with symptoms that could include rashes, fever, headaches, pain behind the eyes, and joint pain. The illness and its symptoms are “usually mild,” according to the CDC, and about one in five people infected will develop symptoms.
As a result, Zika often goes undiagnosed and people infected may not seek medical care.
On February 2, 2016, the CDC has confirmed test results that show Zika can be sexually transmitted.
The CDC is doing more research to provide guidance; especially for the male sexual partners of women who are or may be pregnant.
The urgency of this outbreak is not entirely from the severity of symptoms, but from the fact that Zika can be spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby and has been linked to birth defects, such as, microcephaly smaller than normal head size in infants.
The virus had never been detected in the Americas until now. Zika had only been identified in Africa, Asia, and, most recently, the Pacific islands and Cape Verde.
Currently, the two Pacific Islands where the virus infections are occurring in Samoa and Tonga, prompting the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to advise travelers, and particularly pregnant women, consider postponing travel to both islands.
Brazil is the epicenter of outbreak with over 1.5 million infections. As a result, athletes and tourists planning to travel to Brazil for the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are being told to continue to monitor the virus.
There is also evidence that Zika virus infections may be followed by a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is characterized by ascending paralysis, starting in the feet and legs and rising upwards. In severe cases, the muscles used for breathing become weak and the person has to be placed on a ventilator for respiratory support. In most cases, the person gradually recovers his or her strength over a period of weeks to months, but the recovery may not be complete.
The evidence linking Zika to Guillain-Barre syndrome is not as definitive as that for microcephaly, and the number of cases is not as large, so the CDC has not issued a warning against travel to these countries for those who are not pregnant. However, this is still a cause for concern.
How to Prevent Zika
There is no vaccine to prevent Zika. Therefore, the CDC advises travelers to protect themselves from mosquito bites by taking the following precautions:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use EPA-registered insect repellents as directed.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women can use all EPA registered insect repellents, including DEET, according to the product label.
- Most repellents, including DEET, can be used on children aged greater than 2 months.
- Use permethrin-treated clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. (Clothing, shoes, bed nets and camping gear can be treated with a pesticide called permethrin to kill or repel insects such as mosquitoes and ticks) You can buy pre-treated clothing and gear or treat them yourself.
- Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms.