Doesn’t it seem that every six to eight months, we have another foreign-sounding disease menacing us? Dengue, chikungunya, Ebola, and now Zika. While I don’t mean to diminish the severity of any of these illnesses, I also think that when it comes to travel, we often respond with fear when we ought to respond with logic. Zika is the big bad wolf of today, but unless you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or severely immunocompromised, it is not a threat. In the last year, I went to Belize once and Puerto Rico twice; in 2017, I’m planning on spending at least 3 months in Central America (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala). And am I scared? No, not in the slightest.
The fuss made about travel-specific dangers, such as exotic illnesses and foreign terrorism, is often overblown. That can have terrible consequences on individuals as well as economies, particularly due to misinformation. While obviously no one should have planned a holiday to Liberia during the Ebola crisis, a teacher who did a medical mission in Kenya — some 2,000 miles away from the nearest site of the infection — was forced to quit her job out of ignorance and fear. Thousands of holiday-goers are canceling trips to Zika-afflicted countries, placing great strain on economies largely dependent on tourism. Currently, at least 60 countries are affected by widespread local zika transmission, from Southeast Asia to South America. That’s a whole lot of the world to cancel on.
Hence why I feel this missive on my little travel blog is needed. Let me say it loud and clear: Unless you or your partner are planning on getting pregnant within the next year, there is no reason not to travel to Zika-affected countries.
For non-pregnant woman and their partners, Zika is not that serious
All data shows that the last vestiges of a Zika infection fades within 8 weeks for women and 6 months for men. Zika infection is also not a terribly gruesome unless you are pregnant or are trying to be. Those who are severely immunocompromised should consult a doctor as well to be safe. Zika is asymptomatic for 80% of infected persons, and those who do display symptoms often have very mild ones. Zika is usually just a mild rash, fever, and joint pain – kind of like your basic flu. For those who are pregnant or trying to be, an estimated 1-13% of pregnant mothers infected in their first trimester could have birth defects such as microcephaly. This statistic is frightening enough for mothers-to-be anywhere to want to stay home: this article is not for them. If you are pregnant or wish to be pregnant soon, stay home!!
For those who are not pregnant or trying to be, Zika is less serious than other tropical mosquito-borne illnesses which are also prevalent in many of the same areas, such as dengue fever and chikungunya. Scientists are investigating a link to Guillain-Barré, a treatable immune system condition that follows an infection, causing muscle weakness and temporary paralysis. However, the link between Zika and Guillain-Barré is neither causally proven nor common. Scientists estimate a 0.02%-0.04% of infections in general lead to Guillain-Barré — not Zika alone.
While Guillain-Barré sounds scary, be aware that it’s also possible to get it from influenza, food poisoning, bacterial infections, and common viral infections. Which is to say – you’re not immune from it just by staying at home.
There are easy steps to reduce chances of Zika infection
You definitely should try to prevent mosquito bites, regardless of Zika. These nasty buggers can also carry more serious diseases like malaria, dengue, and chikungunya, depending on where you’re traveling. Mosquito spray with DEET is quite effective, and scientific studies like this one determined there is no risk to using DEET, especially when weighed with the potential risk of bites. Apply it regularly to any exposed skin – it’s not necessary to spray the skin underneath clothing. Zika mosquitos are active by day and by night, so always be prepared. I carry a few mosquito repellent wipes in individual packets in my purse to always be protected because I’m basically mosquito catnip.
If you are particularly concerned, wear light, loose clothing such as linen tops and pants. For those afraid of the chemicals in DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus is also scientifically proven to be successful at repelling mosquitos. Permethrin-treated clothing is also successful at repelling mosquitos. Travel with a mosquito net if you feel especially concerned, though this is not something I’ve ever used.
Here are some products that may be useful if you are planning a trip to a Zika-affected region.
Economies with Zika infection are suffering
Tourism to many countries infected with Zika has dropped, which is understandable. However, keep in mind that the cost of fighting Zika is incredibly expensive, as local government must seek out and destroy mosquito breeding grounds. There’s also the impact of Zika testing, providing prenatal screening and medical services to infected mothers-to-be, and the long-term costs of providing for a generation of children with increased disabilities. If you’re not at particular risk in a Zika-afflicted country, putting your tourism dollars into local economies is an indirect way to help.
Highly effective birth control is often easily accessible
While I don’t wish to gloss over the difficult reality of obtaining birth control in certain states in my own countries and other countries as well, the general trend is that contraceptives are becoming more and more accessible worldwide. Before getting cut off from my health insurance, I made the decision to get the Mirena IUD inserted; that provides me with over 99.8% protection against unwanted pregnancy. The birth control pill is similarly effective, though due to the potential for user error, it is typically less effective than IUDs. Condoms are always necessary unless you are monogamous with a long-term partner, and therefore should be part of your safe sex routine. The combination of two forms of birth control all but guarantee pregnancy prevention and the potential effects of Zika infection during pregnancy.
If there’s a chance you might be pregnant, take a test before planning a trip
If you’ve had any unsafe sex, close calls, or anything that makes you uneasy leading up to a trip to a Zika-affected country, play it safe: take a pregnancy test before you go, and make your own personal medical decisions from there. The risk of microcephaly and other birth defects is not to be ignored, and you should make an informed decision based on all available resources.
Fear is no reason not to travel
I think this is the most important reason of all. While we should never jump into absurd risks – this is not the time to go to Syria, y’all, despite what the Syrian Tourism Board wants you to think.
Yes, this is a real thing. Pardon the digression but it was too ridiculous not to allude to.
The point is this: travelers are often terrible at assessing risk. We get freaked out plane crashes even though riding in a car is thousands of times more likely to lead to death. We cancel trips to France over terrorism, yet book “safer” domestic trips to places like Chicago, where the murder rate in as-of-yet-unfinished 2016 was 769 (to put that in perspective, over 18 horrible months, France lost 234 lives to terrorism). We fear the anomaly. The common flu kills at least 20,000 people in the United States annually. To date, Zika has killed two Americans, both who were elderly and chronically ill in other ways. Look at the numbers and analyze your fear rationally.
There will always be some reason not to go somewhere, as virtually nowhere is 100% risk-free (except perhaps Scandinavia, you glorious bastards). But, as with everything, I urge you to weigh the risks. And don’t let those risks scare you unless there’s a legitimate reason to be afraid.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor nor am I attempting to offer medical advice. I’ve attempted to distill data from several reputable, scientifically sound sources to present an accurate, non-fear-mongering look at the real risks of Zika virus and how it relates to travel. Please consult and confirm with a doctor.
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