It’s easy to get caught up in the headlines about the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne illness linked to birth defects — especially since it has spread to more than 20 countries in the Americas as well as the Caribbean after being detected in Brazil last year. The virus has now been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization. If you’re a little overwhelmed by all the information out there, here’s what you need to know before you travel.
What is the Zika virus? The most recent outbreak of the mosquito-borne illness was first reported in Brazil last year, and has since spread to surrounding countries in the Americas, causing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a travel alert.
For most people, the virus causes a mild illness that usually lasts a few days with symptoms including fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Only one in five people infected with the virus ever show symptoms. However, if a woman is pregnant when infected, it can also cause birth defects in unborn babies — especially if contracted during the first trimester. It usually results in microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads due to incomplete brain development.
What areas are affected? The CDC has issued a Level 2 travel alert (Practice Enhanced Precautions) in 24 countries so far. Among these are most of Central and South America, plus popular Caribbean locations, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Martin, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. The virus is expected to spread, so be sure to check the CDC’s full list before you cruise.
Though Zika is not thought to spread through casual contact, there has been a reported case in Texas of the virus being sexually transmitted. This has been the only reported case to date originating in the continental United States.
How can I prevent it? Although there’s no vaccine or specific treatment for the disease, taking precautions is the best way to ensure you’re not infected. Minimize exposure by covering up with long sleeves and pants, and using an EPA-registered insect repellent (the CDC recommends this for pregnant women as well). You can find the EPA registration number on the product label (123456-1, for example), or search for a specific product on the EPA's website.
Should I still book my trip? While the majority of cruisers shouldn’t take this as a sign to halt their travel plans, pregnant women might want to reconsider traveling to affected areas. If you’re pregnant or could become pregnant, it’s best to consult your doctor.
I already booked a cruise — what can I do? Many major cruise lines are waiving fees for cancellations and offering alternative options. Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean are all allowing pregnant women and their traveling companions to switch their itinerary to an unaffected area, postpone their trip, or cancel it and receive future cruise credit. In addition, if a cruise is going to an affected area, lines like Princess have begun distributing paperwork about the virus outlining how to protect yourself during the cruise.