With the Summer Olympics kicking off in Rio de Janeiro, many travelers are questioning if it's safe to head to Brazil and other countries affected by the Zika virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn't recommend that most people cancel their travel plans. Still, there's concern given that summer vacations are in full swing and so far, more than 50 countries and territories have had Zika virus outbreaks, including hot-weather getaways like Puerto Rico and Ecuador.
In response, the CDC has issued travel alerts for destinations impacted by Zika, which is mainly spread by mosquitoes but also through sex, from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and possibly via blood transfusions. Don't put your vacation plans on hold just yet; with the right planning, travelers can stay healthy when abroad. Here's what you need to know.
Most people who get the Zika virus don't have any symptoms or have mild ones, like a fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes, for up to a week. In rare cases, Zika has been linked to the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome. The big exception here is for pregnant women. Getting Zika during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects in infants, like a defect of the brain called microcephaly, as well as eye problems, hearing deficits, and impaired growth. So the CDC is advising pregnant women to avoid travel to places with ongoing Zika outbreaks. If travel to these areas is a must, see a doctor beforehand. Trying to get pregnant? It's probably also best to visit your physician before stepping on the plane.
There's no treatment or vaccine for Zika, though several vaccines are being tested, so your best strategy in high-risk Zika areas is to protect yourself. This means warding off mosquitoes by doing things like wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, using a mosquito bed net, and regularly applying a bug spray registered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Be sure to pack enough repellent to last the whole trip. When away, stay in places with air conditioning and empty standing water from containers near your hotel room. If you're on an outdoorsy trip, use permethrin-treated clothing and gear. Also, don't forget to use condoms since Zika can spread through sex. For extra assurance, consider buying travel health and medical evacuation insurance before you leave.
Mosquitoes that spread Zika tend to be at peak populations in the summer and die out in winter months. They love hot, humid, tropical climates, so be aware of seasons when planning your trip. For instance, it's wintertime right now in the Southern Hemisphere, which includes Brazil -- meaning lower Zika risk. Also, not every region in an affected country is risky. Zika mosquitoes don't usually survive at elevations higher than 6,500 feet, so try out higher altitude destinations like Mexico City, Bogota, or Machu Picchu. The CDC even includes handy elevation maps in its travel notices. Just protect yourself against mosquitoes while in transit to those hot spots if you pass through lower elevations.
Once you're back from a Zika-affected place, stay vigilant to stop the spread of the virus. If you experience any symptoms or are pregnant, head to the doctor. Even if you don't feel sick, the CDC recommends preventing mosquito bites for three weeks after traveling. Also, use condoms or don't have sex for at least eight weeks upon return. This safe sex period is longer if you've had symptoms or are pregnant. Since there's a chance Zika spreads through blood transfusions, there may also be restrictions on blood donation. The American Red Cross, for instance, asks those who've been somewhere with a Zika outbreak to postpone donating blood for four weeks.
Before you cancel your international getaway, remember Zika is in the U.S., too. At last count, there were more than 1,800 people infected in the continental U.S. The Florida Department of Health has identified several cases in one small area just north of downtown Miami, and the CDC has even taken the step of issuing a travel advisory for the area. Though the CDC recommends that women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant postpone travel to areas with widespread Zika infection, Florida’s case cluster is not considered widespread.
For the latest Zika travel alerts, check out the CDC’s website.