The Zika mosquito is worth worrying about. It can cause a terrible human toll. Full disclosure: the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contacted me and other travel writers to get the word out about this underappreciated threat.
Zika is a disease that is spread by the bite of a mosquito. If you get the disease, your symptoms may be so mild that you won’t even realize you have it. However, if bitten during pregnancy, the disease can spread to the fetus and cause birth defects. The fetus can be infected even by a mother that has no symptoms. Those with symptoms may experience fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes that last for about a week.
International travelers to Latin America and the Caribbean, including Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, are at high risk of Zika infection. Pregnant women should not travel to these areas as it is not worth the risk of infecting the fetus.
Prevention starts before your trip and continues during the trip and after returning home. Mosquito bite prevention is key. However, Zika can also be sexually transmitted. Pack sufficient mosquito repellent for the entire trip, and use it! Apply sunscreen first, then mosquito repellent. If an intimate partner has traveled to a Zika prone area, the CDC recommends condom protection for 8 weeks after the return for women and 6 months for men. Both partners should take responsibility in the prevention of the spread of this disease according to the CDC. If your partner is pregnant, the CDC recommends abstinence or taking these precautions for the entire pregnancy.
If you are visiting friends or relatives in a Zika-prone area, it is important that they be educated by you to use the same precautions outlined here.
Knowing a little about mosquitos will help. They are most prevalent at dawn and dusk. Pools of standing water attract mosquitos because they lay eggs in this water. There is no way to know if a particular mosquito is a carrier of the Zika virus, so you need to prevent getting bitten by any mosquitos.
Look for standing water areas that might breed mosquitos. Avoid areas likely to attract mosquitos.
You can also avoid mosquito bites by wearing the right clothing. Long sleeves and pants are recommended. Permethrin is a mosquito repellent that works when sprayed on clothing. I found it at Good Earth. It should be sprayed on tents if camping outside. If you are going to be sleeping in an area without air-conditioning or good window screens, the CDC recommends using a bed net. Pack it in as it is sometimes difficult to buy bed nets in foreign places. Practice setting it up at home before the trip. Don’t forget to take mosquito netting to cover baby carriers, strollers, and cribs, especially for children younger than 2 years old.
Upon returning home, if you feel ill, see your doctor. Together you can decide if a simple Zika blood test is warranted.
I regret sounding a little preachy in this week’s column, but if something I write can prevent even one Zika-infected fetus, I’m all over it.
Bottom line: in making summer travel plans, take Zika into account. You may want to modify your itinerary to avoid certain areas. Even if you are not traveling, precautions at home are recommended as well.